Is North Korea Testing the Sino-U.S. Relationship with Missiles?

By Joan Johnson-Freese

Though the North Korean missile launch was heavily condemned by much of the international community-with the United States calling it "provocative" and a breach of U.N. rules-and even China expressing "deep concern," diplomatic or economic action against North Korean is unlikely.

It is estimated that approximately 90-95% of space technology is dual-use, meaning that the same technology is of value to both the civil and military space communities. The technical differences between a rocket-with a peaceful connotation of carrying a satellite or even humans into space-and a missile carrying a potentially deadly warhead, are few. Consequently, North Korea's first launch of a satellite into orbit on December 11, 2012 is notable not just because it can now the status of being a spacefaring nation, but it is now a nation significantly closer to having along range missile capability.

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Though the North Korean launch was heavily condemned by much of the international community-with the United States calling it "provocative" and a breach of U.N. rules-and even China expressing "deep concern," diplomatic or economic action against North Korean is unlikely. North Korea is already banned from developing nuclear and missile-related technology under U.N. sanctions, and China would likely block further sanctions. Further, the dual-use nature of space technology provides North Korea with a plausible deniability of nefarious intent.

With this successful launch, North Korea now has bragging rights-including over South Korea, which has yet to demonstrate a similar launch capability-in a region where space activity has shown itself as geostrategically valuable. China and India both have ambitious space programs, including missile defense programs that could provide anti-satellite weapons capabilities. The ambitious and so-far highly successful Chinese human spaceflight program -- China joining the U.S. and Russia in the exclusive club of countries with human spaceflight capabilities -- has pushed India to similarly engage in a human spaceflight effort. Only a few years ago India proudly proclaimed it was not interested in the exploration and prestige programs touted elsewhere. But in Asia today, technology equates to power.

After four previously unsuccessful attempts, North Korea has now managed to place a small satellite into orbit. The technology used to do that potentially also has the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead thousands of miles, perhaps even as far as the west coast of the United States. The military threat, however, for now, still measures in "potential." Clearly, however, North Korea's display of technical prowess - sometimes called techno-nationalism - will garner immediate regional prestige and international clout that will translate into geostrategic leverage.

Militarily, one launch does not equate to an operational capability. While North Korea has managed to develop components that individually appeared functional in the past, this is the first time it has been able to put them together in a usable way, rather than creating a Tower of Babel that tumbles into the sea. North Korea has not shown itself in the past to be strong in systems engineering, the all-important ability to make individual parts work together, and whether it can even duplicate its recent success remains dubious.

Without reliability, North Korean cannot have confidence in the system, thereby negating its utility for military purposes. Further, North Korea has yet to develop a small enough nuclear warhead to sit atop the missile, or tested a reentry vehicle that could withstand the heat of reentering the atmosphere. All of that will take time and skill that North Korea can still only claim dubious title to.

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Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. This analysis originally appeared on China-US Focus, and has been reprinted with permission.

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