North Korea: After The Rocket Launch – Analysis


By Rajaram Panda

In defiance of international criticism and UN sanctions, and only days before South Korea’s presidential elections on 19 December 2012, North Korea unexpectedly fired a long-range rocket from a launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province at 9:51 a.m. on 12 December 2012. The rocket appeared on a radar screen on a South Korea Aegis destroyer deployed in the Yellow (West) Sea right after the launch. The first-stage rocket dropped west of the Byeonsan Peninsula, and an object presumed to have been the second-stage booster, fell in the sea near the Philippines. While South Korea and the US were analyzing the trajectory, preliminary analysis showed that “the rocket fell within the target range” and the launch “seems to have succeeded.”

North Korea
North Korea

According to Pyongyang, the “earth observation satellite” successfully placed in orbit, was the second version of satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, that lifted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province by carrier rocket Unha-3.

According to the Japanese government, the missile passed over islands near Okinawa and some debris fell off into the sea, off the Philippines, around 10:05 a.m. The launch came despite Pyongyang’s announcement over the weekend that it would extend the launch window by a week until 29 December 2012 due to a technical glitch. This was the second launch under its new leader, defying warnings from the UN and Washington.

North Korea declared the launch of the rocket and satellite a success. Contrary to speculations in the region about what motivated first the delay and soon the actual launch; and contrary to claims made by Pyongyang, it is widely believed that the launch is aimed at developing nuclear delivery system.

While South Korean and Japanese officials confirmed that liftoff took place shortly before 10 a.m. on 12 December 2012, along with the US, they had been urging North Korea to refrain from a launch widely seen as a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak planned an emergency National Security Council meeting. Japan too, protested the rocket launch. North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, took power after his father Kim Jong II died on 17 December 2011, and the launch also comes about a month before US President Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term.

The UN Security Council, the US and its allies such as Japan and South Korea however, viewed the test as a platform to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead; notwithstanding the fact that Pyongyang is claiming that the launch was simply to put a weather satellite in orbit and that it was exercising its rights to the peaceful use of space technology. North Korea is banned from testing such technology under UN resolutions, and sanctions have been imposed over its previous tests in 2006 and 2009 after it conducted unsuccessful nuclear tests. Here is why North Korea’s claim of exercising its right to the peaceful use of space technology cannot be believed.

On 6 February 2009, Japan-based pro-North Korean newspaper Choson Sinbo, reported that “the technology and rocketry used for a satellite rocket are nearly identical to those of an ICBM”, acknowledging the possibility of military use. The National Defence Commission of North Korea on 25 February 2012 bluffed that it is mistaken to believe that the US mainland is safe from nuclear weapons.

A similar launch in April broke apart shortly after liftoff, and the condemnation of that attempt is repeated now. Washington and its allies see the launch as a cover for a test of technology for missiles that could be used to strike the US.

Rocket tests are seen as crucial to advancing North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. The country is thought to have only a handful of rudimentary nuclear bombs. But Pyongyang is not yet believed capable of building warheads small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the US. North Korea said it chose a safe flight path so that debris would not endanger neighbouring countries. But there are still concerns over falling debris, and Japan’s defense minister issued an order to missile units to prepare to intercept the rocket if it or its fragments threatened to hit Japan. Post the launch, the country’s top government spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, said that no debris hit Japanese territory.

As expected, the long-range missile launch evoked international condemnation. The US termed it a “highly provocative act”, and said it threatened regional stability as the American Aerospace command said the test marked an apparent technological success for the hermit nation. The US reiterated its commitment to the security of its allies in the region. The UN, Japan and South Korea also strongly reacted to the launch which came as something of a surprise. China rapped its close ally, demanding that Pyongyang comply with the UN’s resolutions against ballistic missiles. The official Xinhua news agency urged all nations in the region to exercise restraint.

Japan’s Fujimura termed the North Korean action as “unacceptable”. Since no rocket debris fell on Japanese territory, no order was issued to destroy any falling debris. Ahead of general elections on 16 December 2012, all of Japan’s political groups have lurched to the right, demanding a revision of the country’s pacifist Constitution. Had the rocket strayed into Japanese air space, Japan might have veered even further to the right. While condemning the launch, South Korea too, warned that the North will be further isolated in the international community. NATO’s Secretary General also observed that Pyongyang’s “provocative act exacerbates tensions in the region and risks further destabilising the Korean peninsula”.

As a further proof of ending its neutrality, India too, expressed its concerns at the launch of the rocket by North Korea in violation of the UN’s Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which bans the country from conducting any launch using ballistic missile technology. In a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, it said “this unwarranted action by the Government of DPRK has adversely impacted peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. India calls on DPRK to refrain from such actions.” With Obama’s re-election, the leadership change already in place in China, and the likely change in leadership in Japan and South Korea later this month, Pyongyang’s action further complicates the security scenario in the region.

Rajaram Panda
Guest Faculty, SLLCS, JNU
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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