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North Korea’s Unha-3 Test: Scientific Achievement or Building a Deterrent?

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After four attempts, North Korea successfully test fired a space booster and put into orbit its first satellite. The move, which sparked wide condemnation as a masked long range ballistic missile test, also shocked for the rapidity with which the poor country recovered from the failure in April 2012.

On 12 December 2012, North Korea launched successfully the Unha-3 rocket, a Taepo-dong-2B (mod-4) space booster launch vehicle. The rocket was launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground at 00:49:46 UTC (09:49 KST) and put into orbit a space satellite, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3.Unha-3 Launch, Reuters

The three stages rocket separated successfully with the first stage impacted the ocean 200 kilometres  off the South Korean west coast at 00:58; at 01:01, the rocket flew over Okinawa (Japan), with the second stage impacting 300 kilometres east of the Philippines four minutes later. The spacecraft separated from the rocket’s third stage at 00:59:13 or nine minutes and 27 seconds after lift-off.

The U.S. Space Command tracked the rocket and its separations from the launch, giving Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 the Satellite Catalog Number 39026 and the international designator 2012-072A.

The test was hailed as a success from North Korean scientists and authorities, and for the first time their claims were backed by US and NORAD with the following note:

‘PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – North American Aerospace Defense Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. EST. The missile was tracked on a southerly azimuth. Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit. At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America’.

KCNA, North Korean News Agency,  previously gave the following statement:

‘Scientists and technicians of the DPRK successfully launched the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into its orbit by carrier rocket Unha-3, true to the last instructions of leader Kim Jong Il. Carrier rocket Unha-3 with the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 atop blasted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 09:49:46 on December 12, Juche 101(2012). The satellite entered its preset orbit at 09:59:13, 9 minutes and 27 seconds after the lift-off. The satellite is going round the polar orbit at 499.7 km perigee altitude and 584.18 km apogee altitude at the angle of inclination of 97.4 degrees. Its cycle is 95 minutes and 29 seconds. The scientific and technological satellite is fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth. The successful launch of the satellite is a proud fruition of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s policy of attaching importance to the science and technology. It is also an event of great turn in developing the country’s science, technology and economy by fully exercising the independent right to use space for peaceful purposes. At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung’.Celebrations in Pyongyang

The DPRK, that hailed the test as “their sovereign legitimate right to have an indigenous satellite launching as a part of their peaceful space program to demonstrate its economic, & technological power”, is contrasted by the usual accusation that this masks a test for a long range missile capable to carry nuclear war heads and put into range US west coast and Asia.

The UNSC condemned the launch in violations of the resolutions numbers 1718 & 1874 against such activities, although once again the reaction from the main powers has not been homogeneous, highlighting issues to come.


The last chapter in the Taep’o-dong saga? 

The Unha-3 rocket tested in April 2012 was believed to be a new version of precedent Taep’o-dongs, with a first stage using a liquid propeller (Tm-185 and oxidizer Ak-271) rocket known as Musudan-1 ( MRBM derived from Soviet R-27 Zyb). The second stage was thought to be an evolution of the soviet scud based on SS-N-6 technology, like a Rodong-1, a Hwasong-6 or a Nodong. The third stage was new and is believed to be a highly refined design of a liquid storable propellant based on a second stage, and separate engine pump system, utilized in a similar design that Iran has tested successfully on its Safir-II space boosters.

The rocket launched in December is believed to be a further evolution of the Unha-3/Taep’o-dong tested in April 2012, although, as usual, technical specification will be hard to be assessed due to the secrecy of the North Korean authorities.

The satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 (Chosŏn’gŭl: 《광명성―3》호 2호기; Bright Star-3 Unit 2 or Lode Star-3 Unit 2), is an Earth observation spacecraft that replaced the original Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, destroyed in the failed test on 13 April 2012. The launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 was the fourth North Korean attempt to put into orbit a satellite; in the first failed two attempts, 1998 and 2009, North Korea still claimed success  (Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2), whilst in the third in April 2012 admitted the failure after an unprecedented exposure and overture to foreign journalists.

North Korea said the satellite would estimate crop yields and collect weather data as well as assess the country’s forest coverage and natural resources. It also said the satellite weighed about 100 kilograms (200 lb) and that its planned lifetime will be about two years. However, there are reports that the satellite is tumbling and could be dead, while North Korea claims is still functioning.


In the latest test, there are some elements of continuity as well as new trends if compared to North Korean previous patterns. The discontinuity is marked by the rapidity with which North Korea not only conducted the test but also made it successful. In the past each test was carried out on longer terms: 1998, 2009, 2012.  This time only eight months passed since the last one. This new timescale is surprising especially taking into account that in April they seemed yet so far to master space launching. An element of continuity is the return of a more enigmatic, discording and vague approach towards outside world. Although they revealed rocket’s trajectory and plans even two days before they announced an extended window to 29 Dec for the launch. This signs a clear abandon of the extreme and unprecedented overture of April 2012 when the whole world was invited to assist at the failure, creating embarrassment in Pyongyang.

North Korean perspective

The reasons behind the launch are reaching far from the simple scientific achievement and could be divided into two categories: internal and external.

Kim leadership still unclear

The launch came after a turbulent start of leadership for Kim Jong-un. Nearly a year after his access to power, Kim Jong-un is still trying to shape the country and consolidate his power. Especially after the April failure his leadership appeared to be under scrutiny and weakened in relation to the powerful KPA and hardliners in the Worker’s Party. The April failure was not only a technical and scientific embarrassment but was also the first time that a North Korean leader was publicly humiliated and forced to admit a shortcoming. That sort of “papal infallibility” that used to be a virtue of previous leaders was suddenly unmasked in front of all North Koreans. However, along personal failure, this was also a dangerous sign of a weakness especially in the already turbulent relations with the military establishment.

Recent moves by Kim, tending to a timid relaxation of the rigid dirigist economy have further severed the relations with radicals in the regime. Farmers are now allowed to keep part of their production and constructions projects in Pyongyang are aimed at change and stimulate the image of the country. For many analysts this path, probably under Chinese financing, could be similar to the timid reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Ping in the ‘80s following his market’s socialism theory.

Taking into account the above, is then not surprising that the test achieves even more strength and significance. The successful launch give back to Kim Jong-un a sense of pride and recovered from a huge setback; makes him the first leader achieving the result and in a very short time. Nevertheless, is not all victory as Kim Jong-un had to compromise with the military and Worker’s Party by following a more prudent and vague strategy thus leaving also to critics space to joy.  The army and the party have obviously benefited too from the success, strengthening their propaganda aimed at the enemies and building a strong image of the country.

It appears anyway that Kim Jong-un has still a long road to go, before he can be sure to have consolidated his power. Reading behind the lines on the first statements coming from KCNA, for example, all credit has been given to Kim Jong-il “suggestions on previous errors” (perhaps from death?) and omit completely to mention Kim Jong-un. Only two days later, at the official celebration in Kim Il-Sung Square, the science chief greeted the leader for the accomplishment, not the military or workers party.

Scientific achievement or step closer to ICBM technology?

The launch has been a complete success for a country impoverished and isolated but still capable to achieve an extraordinary scientific achievement. If we exclude the regime’s propaganda, is out of doubt that this success put North Korea in a small club of space nations. However, the above judgment is true if we are making our consideration in relation to the scientific sphere. Different matter if we take into account the accusation of North Korea using the test as a cover to build an ICBM technology. But how far are they and how likely is that to happen?

North Korea has clearly capability on ballistic missiles, as shown already not only with this test but also with the impressive arsenal at disposal of short and medium range rockets. Nevertheless ICBM technology will require more than the above test. New missiles must be designed, capable not only to reach orbit but also to deliver a warhead by resisting the return into atmosphere; a space booster has to be assembled on a tower whilst a ICBM will require a more covert launch pad, like a mobile one; North Korea will need to fit a warhead, likely a nuclear one, for which more tests will required. North Korea has conducted nuclear tests in 2009 but the quantity of plutonium and tests itself were partially successful.

Obviously the above is a speculation based on what we have seen, recorded and admitted by North Korea. However, we should not forget that the secrecy is high and most of the real capability and disposal of nuclear weapons is still unclear. Based on the above, analysts tend to consider North Korea far from achieving ICBM technology and master the weaponry. In reality considering the last test there is a sense of nervousness, because if in April North Korea was on an “improbable tag” today is on the “probable one”. Two elements contributed in changing this rating and consider the possibility that the country will develop in the future an ICBM rocket: the fast pace of the progress and recent missiles paraded.

Both elements have something in common: North Korea may be not building the knowledge only by indigenous technology and know-how. The pace accelerated with an extraordinary progress from April making the above assumption more realistic; but is the second point that alarmed and removed skepticism. In April during a parade long range missiles on a mobile launcher were shown in Kim Il-Sung Square. Since then there has been huge speculation on how North Korea achieved that rockets and launchers and especially if they were real. Discordant opinions have been given on the subject, although general tendency is that they were probably a camouflage. However, the launchers were real and the camouflage may have been used for something they probably have rather  than for something nonexistent. The Chinese identification of the launchers made therefore clear a fact: North Korea is by legal or  illegal, direct or indirect means achieving technology from outside. The question is how and who is helping Pyongyang, creating ambiguity especially in the not so clear relation between Pyongyang and Beijing.

Test is a message to enemies and friends

The test is a clear message to enemies and friends of Pyongyang and is directed mainly to all the parties involved in this legacy, on which they have shared in common recent changes of leadership or electoral process.

The move is clearly once again directed especially to Washington; Obama re-election, although clear the way from a possible republican hardline presidency, represent for Pyongyang the necessity to remind an independent policy and not tolerating any sort of interference. In this behavior much has contributed especially the recent decision by US in allowing South Korea to install medium range missiles and repeated naval drills in the area. Increasing tensions in the China Sea between Japan and China and between China and rivals have put the US under attention in fact dragging them in the area.

Pyongyang does not accept US interference in the area and fear that the new pacific policy aimed at China in reality hide the desire to alter the geopolitical system and increasing the military capability of their allies.

The relations with China are therefore acquiring different significance. Pyongyang and Beijing seem to have more in common and need each other than previously thought. Beijing strategy is using North Korea as a wild card, but without real support in strengthening Pyongyang capability, seem to be at an end and; China may be not so cautious, preferring to see a strong North Korea ally in what is now becoming an area of increasing tension and of a likely new arm race.

International Reaction: Behind the Words, No Real Action

The People’s Republic of China, through the foreign ministry expressed concerns but at the same time invited all parties to avoid confrontation and hard measures. Move that as usual will mean one thing: no real action will follow after the UN condemnation.

Japan and South Korea condemned in strong terms North Korea as irresponsible and ignoring any international law as well as any restraint.

Russian foreign ministry released a statement stating “The new rocket launch carried out by North Korea flaunts the opinion of the international community, including calls from the Russian side, and leaves us with deep regret”

A spokesman for the US National Security Council described the launch as “another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behaviour”, and called for “a clear message that its violations of UN Security Council resolutions have consequences”.

The main accusations moved to North Korea can be summarised below:

-A violation of the moratorium in ballistic missile tests

-A threat to regional and world security

– Test for a satellite was in reality a long-range rocket test in disguise

UNSC condemned in strong words North Korea, but is very unlikely that a real action will follow without Chinese and Russian opposition.

The successful launch sparked uneasiness especially in Washington where now there are question marks on the possibility of North Korea developing ICBM. This successful test left the international community with the following feelings:

-North Korea, that was seen in April far from mastering space technology and LRICBM, is in reality making quick progresses.

-At present there is no danger for US territory but there is concern that North Korea may be able to acquire that necessary technology and being able to develop an LRICBM.

-There is still uncertainty on Kim’s leadership over the military.

-North Korea has more resources than believed and whose connections are not always so clear.

The US, that have been the major key player in this last 10 years of legacy, have lost that sense of security matured in April and, although not immediate, in the future may happen that their territory could be under range of North Korean missiles. Obama entourage in this second term are therefore in a different situation compared to the past: continue in the containment policy or engage Pyongyang directly? As we have mentioned several times, the US are pursuing a new strategy pointing towards the Pacific. North Korea, as China, did not welcome the announcement by President Obama. Even though this policy is clearly aimed at the Chinese, North Korea knows that is in the range of US desire for a different geopolitical system. The test was for North Korea the clear sign that they work actively in building a deterrent.

Japan and South Korea are obviously, as usual and rightly, the more concerned by the latest developments. Nothing has really changed in their position and North Korea is as dangerous today as it was yesterday. North Korea have a huge stockpile of short and medium range ballistic missiles, as well as chemical and bacteriological weapons, without counting a powerful and full-armed army. The test, even if confirmed for LRICBM, is clearly designed in anti-american stance and this does not alter Pyongyang hostility for Seoul and Tokyo.

China, a long-term ally of Pyongyang, is the key point of ambiguity and concern. In then past the western powers always believed that Beijing was between the hammer and anvil. In the past China has seemed uncomfortable with North Korea due to the major interest of the Chinese in presenting the country as a trusted economic partner as well as a solid market. This is now changing and the Chinese are not trusted anymore in their relations with Pyongyang, for two reasons: US policy and internal factors. The US strategy in the Pacific has angered the Chinese authority, as they are trying to build a powerful navy and consolidate their military strength. Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, fear of a strong Chinese military presence have found ears in Washington, now concerned by the rapid development of the Chinese air force, as well as the navy. China therefore sees North Korea as a valuable card to play to keep these rivals at large: make sure the Pyongyang regime does not collapse and give that sort of boost to underpin western desires. The other reason for concerns in China is related to the recent change of leadership that will lead a traditional and conservative policy internally and a more aggressive externally. The major concern is that Beijing could be helping Pyongyang in making progresses through financial support necessary to obtain the technology and know-how necessary to develop that deterrent.

North Korea remains therefore a threat to regional and global security, and the successful test will lead likely to more tensions. Kim Jong-un has already announces that new rockets will be tested and whether they will be for a peaceful means or to build a nuclear capability, it will only become clear at the next move of this unpredictable country.

Written by Matteo Figus

18/12/2012 at 21:22

North Korea Unha-3 rocket launch fails

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On Friday 13th April 2012, North Korea went ahead with the launch of its Unha-3 rocket, ending in the same way of the previous two attempts, failing. The 30 metres  Unha-3 rocket was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province, Pongdong-ni (or Dongchong-ri or Tongch’ang-dong) West Coast at 07:39 local time (22:39 GMT Thursday). The rocket flown southward, to the west of the Korean peninsula, as scheduled, but failing after only 2 minutes. The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) issued a statement confirming that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 Km west of Seoul, and the rest of the rocket exploded into at least 20 pieces falling into the sea.

Surprisingly, and for the first time, North Korea did not deny the failing and the state-run KCNA news agency announced: “The Earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit. Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure”. State television carried a similar announcement.

The rocket believed to be an enhanced version of the Taep’o-dong -2 was carrying a working satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, (Bright Shining Star) manufactured by North Korea with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim II Sung. The test flight, announced by North Korean authorities as a peaceful part of their ambitious space programme, has been widely condemned by the international community as a covert operation to test fire long-range ballistic missiles.

The failure of this launch is embarrassing for the regime and will lead to consequences internally and internationally, in a moment of great uncertainty after the death of Kim Jong-Il.


Taep’o-dong 2 (Unha-3): behind the ambitious plan

The Taep’o-dong is a North Korean-made three stage rocket evolved in different versions and tested and on three different occasions. Its evolution can be traced in 1987, when by order of Kim Jong-Il was commissioned a work to produce an effective weapon to counter threats or possible invasions. The original steps of the North Korean missile programme for a long-range rocket can be recalled to an evolution of the Egyptians scuds provided by the Soviets. North Korean engineers called this rocket Hwasong-5, and successive evolutions led to version 6 with a longer range and payload.

Increasing the capabilities of the Hwasong by 50%, technician were able to produce the Nodong Rocket, tested successfully on different occasions and produced in quantities to be considered a rocket in standard use by the army. The Taep’ o-dongs are the natural evolution of these first steps, although no one can be sure of the technical specifications and most of the time are based on assumptions from images or few details made available from different sources.

The first appearance of the Taep’ o-dong in its raw form was in February 1994 as two-stage rocket, with a range of 3,670-3,750 Km and payload of 700-1,000 Kg. The United States officially recognised the existence of this rocket, and of the North Korean programme, on a presentation made by the Vice-President of the Missile Defence Agency of the Pentagon, Army Brigadier-General Patrick O’Reilly at the George C. Marshall Institute.

It was unveiled the new Taep’ o-dong-2C/3, a two-stages rocket, with a potential range of 9,975.8 km, and a three-stage version with a potential range of 14,963.7 Km and a payload of 250 Kg. Was also observed that the new Nodong B could be able to fly 3,218-4,000 Km demonstrating a huge improvement in the capabilities of North Korean in evolving missile technology.

In February 1994, American sources identified North Korean testing for a new liquid engine, although was not clear if it was related to the Nodong A or the new Taep’ o-dong, whose first stage was speculated to be a variant of the Chinese CSS-2 or CSS-3, and the second stage a Nodong A. The latter has been most likely the start point in the evolution of the final steps for the taep’ o-dong in its final form, and had a first evolution as Iranian Shahab-3D/IRIS as a possible space carrier. The North Koreans were then able to unveil the Taep’ o-dong -1, a 25m rocket, 21t of weight and a possible payload of 1 t. The Taep’o-dong-1 was a two-stage rocket (the first a Nodong and the second a Hwasong-6) and tested on 31st August 1998 as space scarier. On that occasion, was introduced a third stage, likely a solid combustible able to carry a satellite in orbit. The first two stages operated successfully, but the third stage exploded. This failure led North Korean scientists to abandon this rocket and its subsequent evolution, the TD-2/A, considered inadequate to be successful as space carriers or potential LRICBM*.

Was the successful evolution of the Nodong B to permit North Korea in making a definitive improvement in missile technology and use it as a new base for further studying in the evolution of long-range rockets. The Taep’ o-dong 2C/3 was tested in 2006, in significant delay in respect to the original plans of 3-5 years elaborated by North Korean technicians, and carrying a new design based on the prototypes TD-2A and 2B. This was confirmed by the satellite images of the US Army, showing also works of improvement at the launch base in Musudan-ri with a new tower of 33 metres (against the 22m of the precedent) in 1999.

Between years 2001-02, North Korea conducted only ground tests on taepodong engines at least three or four times. Many of the delays can be attributed to the inadequacy of the launch station in Musudan-ri, not ready to host LRICBM rockets and with few infrastructure of support: few roads, mostly not paved, absence of support site for stocking material and no staff structure support. Musudan–ri hosted only three test flight for rockets, although on ground, between 1999 and 2001, but with the possibility of further subterranean tests.

South Korean sources reported on 21st April 2003 that a huge explosion occurred in November 2002, destroying partially the launch pad, and confirmed by American spy satellites. This incident led to the delay that will see the TD-2 tested only in 2006.

In 2006, American intelligence gathered enough data to confirm that North Korea was on the road to test a long-range missile in violation of the moratorium under the Declaration Japan- North Korea between Kim Jong-Il and Junichiro Koizumi. The Taepodong-2 was launched on 05th July 2006 form Musidan-ri base, but failed after only 35 seconds.

North Korean technicians still believed that this was the correct path to follow and making further changes and restyling they were able to announce a new test in 2009. The Taep’odong-2 or Unha-2 was launched on 05th April 2009, officially to carry a communication satellite the Kwangmyongsong-2 o Unha-2 into orbit. Although the test failed to send into orbit a satellite, discordant judgement were given. Pyongyang announced that the missile launch was successful and the satellite was in orbit transmitting revolutionary chants, whilst American intelligence announced its failure as the rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent data, shown that the missile was able to fly for several miles, further than previously believed and used advanced navigation systems, if compared to the precedent test. Data confirmed that the rocket flew 2,390 miles against 1,900 previously announced by American military sources, and that was able to enter orbit before falling back into the atmosphere. The sources confirmed that the third stage failed in separating, whilst the second stage operated successfully. First accounts reported the second stage failing. Sources from the US Air Force Defence Support Programme (DSP), shown that the rocket carried advanced navigation systems and other technological advancements, suggesting that the North Korean were testing an ICBM rather than a space carrier.

The rocket tested in 2009 was believed to be a new version of precedent taep’o-dongs, with a first stage using a liquid propeller (Tm-185 and oxidizer Ak-271) rocket known as Musudan-1 ( MRBM derived from Soviet R-27 Zyb). The second stage was controversial, and many think was an evolution of the soviet scud based on SS-N-6 technology, like a Rodong-1, a Hwasong-6 or a Nodong. The third stage was likely a Chinese-made solid combustible and might be identical to the Iranian Safir’s second stage.

The Unha-3, rocket tested in 2012, is believed to be a further evolution of the Unha-2/Taep’o-dong tested in 2009, although, as usual, technical specification will be hard to be assessed due to the secrecy of the North Korean authorities. The rocket was 30-meter long, 2.5m diameter and 120 tonnes, but what captured the attention of space engineers in the world was a new third stage. This is believed to be a highly refined design of a liquid storable propellant based on a second stage, and separate engine pump system, utilized in a similar design that Iran has tested successfully on its Safir-II space boosters.

The Unha-3 failed to reach orbit, bringing a new failure in North Korean ambition to develop a space capability and maybe a LRICBM. However, the consequences of this failure are not limited to a technical sphere and may involve both internal and external aspects.


*SRBM: Short Range Ballistic Missile <1000 Km

  MRBM: Medium Range Ballistic Missile 1000-2500 Km

  IRBM: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile 2500-3500 Km

  LRICBM: Limited Range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile 3500-8000 Km

  FRICBM: Full Range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile 8000-12000 Km


North Korea perspective:

The failure of the Unha-3 launch is embarrassing for the North Korean regime, that is the bottom line. Never in the history of the North Korean missile programme, a failure had an impact such this and the reasons are various.

North Korea propaganda worked hard, more than usual, in trying to persuade not only its people but also the world that the most isolated country was able finally to achieve the mastery of space technology. The brainwashing messages to North Koreans have been sided by the unexpected and unprecedent overture of the regime to foreign journalists, invited to the space station in Sonhae. The move, that the regime included in the celebration for the centenary its great leader Kim Il Sung, was also aimed at reassure international community that this test was not for military purposes.

What made Pyongyang take this path? As we know North Korea is still in the difficult and uncertain process of power transfer from Kim Jong-Il to his young son Kim Jong-un, and the test in reality may have different interpretations than technological ones. The main concern for the young Kim is to consolidate and stabilize his power, keep control of the state, continue in the military first policy of his father aiming at the essential support of the army, maintaining a grip on the people, and adopt a strong stance towards western and neighbouring powers. After the obvious announcements in Kim Jong-un as head and chief of different key state and army positions, followed an unexpected overture in February 2012 when Pyongyang agreed to a partial freeze in nuclear activities and a missile test moratorium in return for US food aid. The move was seen as an important change in the new leadership and led many observers to believe that a new six nation talks could be reinstated. We could not be more wrong. After not even a month, North Korea announced its plan for a new rocket test, although for peaceful means, but led instantly to international condemnation, with US freezing its aid and threats of different kind. In reality, looking at the North Korean diplomatic history, as well recent events, nothing has really changed: Pyongyang love to open and close the door at the same time, be unpredictable, a mystery, and an unknown threat.

The invitation of foreign journalists, sharing the event with the world, was not only propaganda, but also a plan with the below objectives:

-Demonstrate a new course in the leadership

-Confirm the intention in pursuing a space programme

-If successful, achieve glory and obviously able to develop a strong military deterrent.

The failure could undermine all the above points and led to unclear consequences for the regime. The propaganda, could have a disastrous effect internally to a nation generally used to receive lies and unbelievable accounts of achievement by the “dear leaders”. This time, state TV announced the failure in a broadcast. This admission could lead the leaders in the party and the army to believe that a dangerous message could reach the masses, lifting that sort of infallibility that surrounded the Kim dynasty for decades. The consequences could lead to an even harder grip on people as well a possible internal struggle for power control and legitimacy.

Never in the past, although failing tests were happening, was a public admission permitted, making in fact Kim Jong-un the first known leader to have failed in something at the eye of his fellow citizens.

If the timid overture was a test for a new course, this can be said is now gone, as the hard liners in the party but especially in the army will push for a return to the muscular and strong stance against “enemies” inside and outside the country. This could lead to military moves, such the Cheonan incident, or a new nuclear test. The latter has been speculated and could bring stability in the regime, scare the world again and steer back the new leader toward the path of his father.

North Korean authorities have been pursuing ballistic technology for decades and, if on the medium range they have achieved results able to guarantee defence against neighbouring countries, they know that only a powerful weapon such an ICBM could provide the deterrent to block any US attempt for a regime change. The only certain point is that North Korea will not renounce to achieve ICBM technology and a temporary threat will be found to keep at large the reinvigorated international community. The uncertain aspect is how this failure will affect Kim Jong-un leadership and his ability to have a real autonomy and effective control over the army, the very and only key holders to the secrets of this last bastion of the cold war.


International reactions and consequences

International response from this test has been as usual very strong in terms of condemnation, but this time the nature of the test and its aftermath could lead to different positions.

All the major players in the North Korean missile legacy have publicly criticised the regime for the following reasons:

-A step back to the old days after the overture in February

-A violation of the moratorium in ballistic missile tests

-A threat to regional and world security

US, Japan, and South Korea have always maintained that North Korea test for a satellite was in reality a long-range rocket test in disguise, and how we could blame them seen the past? China and Russia reacted nervously to this new announcement by Pyongyang but maintained their usual reserves.

The first reactions were in line with past declarations and similar events, although what followed will probably create different positions.

The unexpected invitation to foreign journalists by North Korean authorities, the decision to review the fly path of the rocket, after Japan threatened to shoot it down if fired above its airspace, and the clear sign that this time was a satellite test, created more questions than answers. Obviously, would have this test been successful many, especially the US, will be worried about North Korean capabilities and possibility to develop an LRICBM able to carry nuclear warheads. Its failure left the international community with the following feelings:

-North Korea is far from master space technology and LRICBM.

-At present there is no danger for US territory

-The unexpected overture to foreign journalists would suggest a timid softer approach by current leadership or prelude an internal struggle

-North Korea is less dangerous or capable then previously thought.

Based on the above assumptions, western powers and regional countries are now evaluating their positions and response. The UN has already condemned the launch but what next?

North Korea is clearly, at present, not able to develop long-range ballistic missiles technology or space boosters, relieving the anxiety especially of the US, but nothing really changed for Japan and South Korea that area still target of medium range missiles. The wrong assumption that North Korea is weak, or less frightening, could lead to disastrous consequences. Engaging the regime in Pyongyang too hard could lead them to military skirmishes as seen in the past, as well carrying new MRBM or nuclear tests. Condemning and isolating North Korea in the same way as in the past has not changed their way, or their desire to build a deterrent to US hegemony. The effect could be paradoxically the contrary, reinforce their sense of isolation, give the army and the hardliners a reason more to legitimise their missile programme and a crackdown on internal policy.

Even the timid signs of dialogue from the new leader could be washed away by a strong and belligerent stance by the US and South Korea: Kim Jong-un, clearly now at the eye of the turmoil, could be weakened even more in front of the powerful People Army and be relegated to a sort of puppet, and in the worst of the hypothesis open a power struggle with unthinkable consequences for the peninsula.

The US, that have been the major key player in this last 10 years of legacy, now can be still sure that their territory is free from attacks, but they also know that North Korea will not renounce to pursue that technology. Unlike Bush administration, Obama entourage did not use the hard line policy or the black list post 9/11, preferring instead a containment policy. This seems to have given some results in softening the North Korean approach, but a more radical stance by the US could give the regime the pretext for a return to a confrontational policy. A natural question will now arise as to why North Korea is pursuing this old fashion policy with the US, contradicting the initial steps. The US are at the moment in a point of passage, but two are the possible reasons for North Korea perceptions: the reshuffle of troops and strategy to the Pacific and November presidential elections. North Korea, as China, did not welcome the announcement by president Obama of a new strategy by US military forces prioritising the Asia/Pacific area. Even though this policy is clearly aimed at the Chinese, North Korea know that is in the range of US desire for a different geopolitical system. The possible change at the presidency of the US, with a return of the Republican Party, and therefore a major opposition and a more aggressive foreign policy, could then explain North Korea attempt to frighten and remind the US that there is no space for negotiations.

Japan and South Korea are obviously, as usual and rightly, the more concerned by the latest developments. Nothing has really changed in their position and North Korea is as dangerous today as it was yesterday. North Korea have a huge stockpile of short and medium range ballistic missiles, as well chemical and bacteriological weapons, without counting a powerful and full-armed army. The death of Kim Jong-Il has created more concerns than happiness in these two countries and the recent developments suggest that Kim Jong-un is far from be really in command and unopposed by internal rivalries. Especially South Korea now fears that the North, in search of revenge for this embarrassment and because of the army strengthening, could look for small military engagements or pursue new nuclear tests.

China, a long-term ally of Pyongyang is also at a crossroad: appease the regime or be against? China has seemed uncomfortable with North Korea in the recent years due to the major interest of the Chinese in presenting the country as a trusted economic partner as well a solid market. The Chinese called for restraint and paved the way to stop furnishing technology to North Korea. This could now change for two reasons: US policy and internal factors. The US strategy in the Pacific, has angered the Chinese authority, as they are trying to build a powerful navy and consolidate their military strength. Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, fear of a strong Chinese military presence have found ears in Washington, now concerned by the rapid development of the Chinese air force, as well the navy. China could therefore see North Korea as a valuable card to play to keep these rivals at large: make sure the Pyongyang regime does not collapse but not strengthening it enough, as they are known to be like a dangerous dog without a leash.

The other reason for concerns in China is related to the recent internal struggle in the Communist Party and rumours of discontent in the powerful People Liberation Army. China is struggling to keep together the capitalist facade with the preservation of the communist interiors, and cracks are appearing in the monolithic PCC, as well unrest in the countryside where paradoxically the insurgence could arrive from nostalgic Maoists rather than from a liberal side.

Russia, the last of the six parties at talks, does not see North Korea as a priority affair, not its sphere of influence. However, Russia includes North Korea in a wide geopolitical system aimed at contain the neo-imperialist stance of NATO and US hegemonic desire shown by the regime change policy. Russians will back the Chinese in calling for restraint in Pyongyang but preventing any real possibility of further military engagement. Russia position in strengthening its US containment policy, is having a boost especially after the recent election of Putin at the presidency, and the signal of a hard line towards NATO has been demonstrated in the current Syrian crisis.

North Korea remains therefore a threat to regional and global security, both for as possible military confrontation or by collapsing. Unfortunately for us their next moves are as usual  surrounded by unpredictability as the regime itself, still able to waste millions of dollars in pursuing a space/missile programme, whilst unveiling gold statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim  to an hungry and lobotomised population.


Written by Matteo Figus

15/04/2012 at 18:26

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