Is North Korea Testing the Sino-U.S. Relationship with Missiles?
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.
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.
Additionally, shortly after the satellite - an earth-observation or weather satellite called Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3 - achieved orbit it appeared either out-of-control or not spin stabilized, further questioning the maturity of North Korea's engineering skills. Though some media reports have raised alarms that the satellite could be a danger to other spacecraft, the statistical likelihood of that is low. There are already a number of other operational spacecraft in orbit and the large amount of orbiting junk - including some very large pieces - so one more satellite will not measurably raise the threat threshold.
North Korean claims of ambition to launch a satellite began in 1998 with its first Taepodong-1 launch. That, and those that followed in 2006, 2009 and April 2012, were failures. The closest North Korea perhaps came to success previously was in 2009. Then, though North Korea claimed that its satellite reached orbit and was broadcasting triumphant revolutionary melodies back to Earth, those who track space objects identified the first stage of the launcher as having fallen into the Sea of Japan and the rest of the launcher and the satellite remnants as landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Nevertheless, even the failures have drawn regional and global reactions. The 1998 test accelerated Japanese interest in missile defense from casual to dedicated. It also provided the impetus for the United States to focus more on long-range, or what used to be known as "national" missile defense, rather than short-range, or theater missile defense. While the testing track record of the U.S. long range missile defense program has been little better than that of the maladroit North Korean launchers it is intended to "catch," the program has taken on a political life of its own. No doubt missile defense advocates will use this latest North Korean event to try and rally more monetary support for missile defense beyond the billions it already receives.
So why now? Why would North Korea defy the international community and launch this Galaxy-3, or Unha-3 rocket as it is called in the North?
North Korea has a new, young and untested leader, Kim Jong-un. The global community has hoped that Mr. Kim might be a more responsible international player, stepping back from the confrontational, in-your-face attitude that prevailed during the tenure of his father, the irrepressible Kim Jong-Il. Kim Jong-un has been in office barely a year, and has yet to prove himself either domestically or on the international stage. He has worked hard to gain credibility with the powerful North Korean military, including purges in recent moths and appointments of loyalists to key positions, and even the suggestion that he might be a less confrontational leader likely created domestic pressure to show himself as an international force. In that regard, the April 2012 launch failure was somewhat of a humiliating introduction onto the international stage.
Kim Jong-un had loudly proclaimed his country's ability to master sophisticated technology regardless of its isolation and extreme poverty - a boldly techno-nationalist assertion. He needed to put up or shut up. Not only did the successful launch send a clear political message to the West, it was also perhaps a marketing demonstration for countries like Iran since North Korea and Iran have been increasingly close, with missile cooperation between the two countries a distinct possibility.
The demonstration of successful space achievements offers a country both capabilities, civil and military, and panache. For North Korea, that panache is not unimportant, as it can translate into geostrategic leverage.
The symbolism of the launch will, in the short term, be as or more important than the technology demonstrated. While the military threat from the launch technology remains distant, the national intent is clear. North Korea is again beating its chest, when the world had been hoping those days had been left behind.