North Korea: Domestic And International Politics Of Satellite /Missile Launches – Analysis


By Radhakrishna Rao

North Korea, branded as a “rogue state,” seems to have perfected the art of making occasional announcements of missile and satellite launches that stir concern and controversy as well as draw hostile reactions from across the world. As expected, the most recent announcement of the preparations for a satellite launch sometime in December has come in for flake collectively from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

North Korea
North Korea

What are North Korea’s long-term objectives? Is it trying to influence the forthcoming Presidential election in South Korea? Or is this a part of its long-term objective to develop an ICBM?

A Camouflage for ICBM?

Washington has already declared this as an “act of provocation” and its spokesman said that “any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is the direct violation of the UN Security Council Resolution.”

The response in Tokyo to the North Korean launch announcement was rather drastic with Japan stressing the point that it will postpone the diplomatic talks that it had planned with North Korea. Analysts consider that this launch could be a controversial move, capable of boosting the global stand off on North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programme.

A Ruse to Divert Domestic Opinion and a Strategy to Consolidate inside?

The feeling at the ground level is however, that the dramatic announcement of space launch by Pyongyang could be a ruse to divert the attention of its impoverished population finding it difficult to meet both ends. Yet another reason attributed to this launch announcement is that country’s political leadership may be keen on redeeming its April launch failure. “North Korea appears to be under pressure to redeem its April launch failure before the year of this strong, prosperous and great nation ends,” says Koh-Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Despite all the strident talks of North Korean advances in building and launching nuclear tipped missiles, defence experts familiar with North Korean strategic preparations have expressed doubts whether it would succeed in mounting a nuclear weapon on the military missile.

Yet, this North Korean launch bid under the leadership of Kim Jong-un is considered a serious attempt at demonstrating the technological prowess of the country facing the heat of sanction. Moreover, a successful space mission could help Kim Jong-un consolidate his position and tighten control over the military set up of the country. Although North Korea claims that it had previously launched Kwangmyongsong-1 and 2 satellites successfully and used them for communication experiments, independent space analysts dispute this claim. The United States Air Force (USAF), which has a sound record in monitoring global satellite launches, has obviously not located these satellites.

Is this a mere Scientific Pursuit?

The North Korean space agency while defending its right to pursue peaceful civilian space programme said that its upcoming space mission would see the launch of a polar orbiting earth observation satellite. Space experts have been quick to point out that this is a clever move towards building a space based reconnaissance system. For earth observation and surveillance are considered two faces of the same coin. Today many civilian earth observation satellites in operation are considered “free-wheeling spies in sky.” Whether the North Korean belief that the failed April launch had helped improve the performance of its launch vehicle is true, will be known only after the upcoming space mission.

To conclude, this launch announcement has the potential to further strain North Korea’s relation with South Korea, Japan and the US. The US Defence establishment continues to suspect Chinese support to the North Korean missile development programme. On the other front, this launch could be a controversial move calculated to boost the global stand off on North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development programme.

In context of the divergent views on North Korean missile development programme and the lack of sound evidence on the type of missiles perfected for use by this “reclusive state,” one is left to wonder whether Iranian nuclear programme and the North Korean missile development dynamics are no more than a “damp squib.” All said and done, the US defence establishment has been stressing the point that China continues to provide assistance to North Korea’s missile development program.

For the US President Obama, in his second term at the White House, North Korea’s space and missile programme would be a complex challenge that needs to be dealt with a lot of patience and foresight. Reports about North Korea assisting Iran backed militia group Hezbollah to build underground bunkers in southern Lebanon to safeguard the rocket launchers from Israeli air strikes point to the worrisome role of Pyongyang, adding to the already volatile situation in West Asia, even though the pursuit might be driven by expectations of extracting more aid and concessions from Washington.

Radhakrishna Rao
Freelancer, Bangalore
e-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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