A couple of under-reported observations on North Korea’s rocket launch

7. Jan 2013

North Korea’s successful rocket launch on December 12, 2012 predictably spurred worldwide condemnation and media attention. Many of the reports immediately following the launch were remarkably similar and contained few attempts at alternative interpretations of the launch itself and of its implications. In the following text a couple of rather under-reported observations on the North Korean satellite launch will be presented.

  1. North Korea, surprisingly, became the first of the two Koreas to successfully place a satellite into orbit by utilizing solely indigenous technology. South Korea made unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010 and twice postponed a planned launch in 2012.[1] This undoubtedly comes as a slap in the face for researchers in South Korea’s space program, some of which even claimed that North Korean space technology was “at least 20 years behind the South’s”.[2]

  2. 2012 marks the only time North Korea has conducted two launches in the same year, but more importantly the two launches under Kim Jong-un’s rule have shown a significant difference from the launches under the leadership of Kim Jong-il in that the rockets were launched towards the south and not towards the east. Why is this significant? Because it could indicate that Pyongyang is showing an unprecedented wariness of Tokyo’s concerns and warnings of shooting down the rocket were it to pose a threat to Japan. In this context it’s important to note that southward bound launches present a far bigger challenge than eastward bound launches, both financially (more fuel) and technologically (stronger engine). Due to the centrifugal power generated by the Earth’s rotation (west to east) an eastward bound launch would be given a gravitational boost and thus require far less propellants than launches in other directions (the Earth rotates at a speed of almost 1700 kilometers per hour along the equator). Launching towards the south also presents Pyongyang with another disadvantage: the satellite would orbit around the Earth from south to north instead of following the Earth’s rotation from west to east. This means that the satellite will cross North Korea only a limited number of times a year, making North Korea’s satellite practically useless for weather observation purposes.

    By launching the rockets towards the south, North Korea has thus demonstrated a willingness to take a more technologically challenging, expensive and ineffective approach arguably in order to ease Japanese concerns. This is a new development since Kim Jong-un came to power. It could of course also be interpreted as North Korea’s lack of confidence in its own technology and resultant concerns that an eastward bound launch could fall down over Japan and create an unfavorable international environment.

  3. North Korea did indeed place a satellite into orbit. What implications will this have on the language of future references to North Korean rockets? Japan, for example, has up until now consistently referred to North Korea’s launches as “the missile which North Korea calls a ‘satellite’” [北朝鮮による「人工衛星」と称するミサイル ][3], implying that North Korea has had no intentions to place a satellite into orbit, but simply has used the satellite claim as a pretext to test missile technology. This may still be true, but North Korea nonetheless succeeded in placing a satellite into orbit and future references to North Korean launches will possibly be changed. If the international community changes its vocabulary from “missile” to “satellite”, it will perhaps become increasingly difficult to deny North Korea the right to test its rocket technology for use in a peaceful space program, especially as long as South Korea pursues exactly the same goal.

  4. Regarding North Korea’s motives for the launch, there has been a tendency among analysts to over-analyze the reasons for North Korea’s launch. The multiple power transitions in the region might of course have played a role, but what “message” could North Korea possibly have hoped to convey to the various regional actors who all have differing interests and probably interpret the launch in widely different ways? “Don’t forget about us”, could that be it? North Korea hardly needs satellites to prevent its fading into oblivion. If North Korea’s launch was a message, it seems unlikely that it was addressed to other countries than the US. The launch demonstrated once and for all that North Korea has the potential (however limited) to reach US mainland. For Japan and South Korea the launch does not pose a new threat as both these countries allegedly have been within the North Korean missile range since 1993.[4] If this was a message, it was aimed at the US. This also correlates to North Korea’s warning in October that North Korean missiles could reach “not only South Korea and Japan, but also the US”.[5]

    Rather than interpreting the launch as a cry for attention directed at the international community, it seems reasonable that domestic factors were most instrumental this time around. Obviously the launch coincided almost on the day with the one year commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17 2011, but 2012 was also the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and North Korea had announced many years in advance that 2012 would mark the watershed moment when North Korea transforms itself into a “strong and prosperous nation”. The international situation notwithstanding, North Korea would probably have conducted some kind of symbolic act in 2012 to showcase its technological prowess in the new “strong and prosperous” era regardless of outside factors. Its spectacular launch failure in April created, if nothing else, a sense of urgency for achieving something grandiose before the end of the watershed year of 2012.

Ulv Hanssen
Fellow, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation,
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)

[1] http://www.space.com/18186-south-korea-satellite-launch-friday.html

[2] http://www.voanews.com/content/japan-launches-south-korean-satellite-into-orbit/667311.html

[3]See for example the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s homepages, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/n_korea/missile_12_2/index.html

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/13/world/missile-is-tested-by-north-koreans.html