On 16 March 2012, North Korea announced that it would launch an earth observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong (Lodestar) 3, aboard an Unha carrier rocket sometime between the hours of 7 am and noon on a day between 12 and 16 April, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its state founder, Kim Il Sung, and the attainment of “strong and prosperous” status by the country. The launch from a base in the north of the country close to the border with China would be pointed south, dropping off its first phase rocket into the Yellow Sea about 160 kms to the southwest of South Korea’s Byeonsan peninsula and the second into the ocean about 140 kilometres east of Luzon in the Philippines.
Due notice of the impending launch was issued to the appropriate international maritime, aviation and telecommunication bodies (IMO, ICAO and ITU) and, to mark the occasion, North Korea announced that it would welcome scientific observers and journalists. The 15 April date, in the 100th year according to the calendar of North Korea, has long been declared a landmark in the history of the state, and the launch seems designed to be its climactic event.
Meteorological earth observation satellites (multi-functional, but weather forecasting central) are either polar orbiting (Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite or POES) or stationary. This one, North Korea later made clear (KCNA, 26 March), was to be an “advanced geostationary meteorological satellite data receiver.”
Where polar orbiting satellites circle the globe 14.1 times each day on a north-south polar axis commonly at a height of around 800 kilometers, geostationary ones obit it roughly every half-hour at a height of around 33,880 kilometres (thus requiring advanced rocketry capacity), and because of their height they remain stationary with respect to the orbiting earth. Both types are multi-functional and in the words of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) they are able to “collect global data on a daily basis for a variety of land, ocean, and atmospheric applications … including weather analysis and forecasting, climate research and prediction, global sea-surface temperature measurements, atmospheric analysis of temperature and humidity, ocean dynamics research, volcanic eruption monitoring, forest fire detection, global vegetation analysis, search and rescue…” Many satellites, military and civil, are launched every year. The US has three of the stationary variety in operation. Russia, Japan, Europe, China and India also operate geostationary satellites, joined in July 2010 by South Korea. Japan conducts fairly regular launches from its Tanegashima space station site, and devotes some of its information gathering capacity to spying on North Korea.
Satellites, of whichever type, are a mark of advanced scientific status and economic development. As a country that especially in recent years has suffered from acute weather irregularities, presumed due to global warming, and is surrounded by satellite-operating states, North Korea has a strong interest in itself joining the select company, both for motives of pride and face as well as for scientific and economic reasons. A covert military purpose, development of intercontinental ballistic missile capacity, may be assumed, since the rocketry is virtually the same, only the load and the trajectory differ; but this is true of all satellite-launching countries. North Korea became a signatory to the Outer Space treaty (of 1966) in 2009, and now protests that it alone of the world’s nations cannot be denied the universal right to the scientific exploration of space simply because of that convergence of civil and military technology…
… As at time of writing (30 March 2012) there are several possibilities. Pyongyang might, although it seems unlikely, choose to buckle under the pressure and cancel the launch. Such display of weakness and repudiation of the legacy of the late leader would have unpredictable domestic consequences, and the act of submission would likely encourage the member states of the Beijing group to demand more. If, however, Pyongyang resists all pressures and proceeds with the launch, either the launch succeeds or it does not. If an “advanced geostationary meteorological satellite” duly takes its place in the skies, the world will face a fait accompli. Despite sanctions and irrespective of its poverty and isolation, North Korea’s claim to a place in the ranks of advanced scientific and industrial powers would be reinforced and, sooner or later, the hostile powers would have to return to the agenda of September 2005: a comprehensive peninsular peace and normalization agenda. If on the other hand the launch is unsuccessful and/or the vehicle breaks up or enters a missile trajectory, North Korea would face considerable loss of face both domestically and heightened hostility internationally, making early resumption of the Six Party talks unlikely. Embattled, it might resume nuclear testing (as it did when the Security Council denounced the failed launch in 2009), the regime’s hold would likely weaken and the “North Korea problem” might become just so much more difficult to resolve.
The merciless stare which almost the entire world fixes upon North Korea is not to be understood solely in rational terms. The stare is less fierce, it is true, in the case of Russia and China, but both on this occasion seem at least to be joining the coalition of the hostile in urging North Korea to cancel the launch and avoid “provocation.” For much of the world, however, the country serves as a kind of ultimate “other.” Over much of the apst half century, and certainly since the end of the Cold War, no country has been so lacking in international sympathy or solidarity. The United States and Japan expect others to condemn North Korea, and it is easy to find cause to condemn and much less likely to cause offence in the global quarters that count than any serious attempt to identify and pursue global powers that are responsible for aggression and abuse on the grand scale. Thus the Government of Australia, having shown no previous interest in peninsular matters and no understanding of the historic context or of the core of legitimacy that encapsulates North Korea’s cry to the world, to declare itself threatened by the imminent launch and to demand it be cancelled is simply a cheap and empty gesture…
Gavan McCormack is an emeritus professor of the Australian National University and a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. He is author of many books and articles on modern and contemporary East Asia, and many of his articles are accessible on this site. His Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, was published in 2004 and translated and published in Japanese and Korean. In 2008 and 2009 he contributed a monthly column to the Seoul daily Kyunghyang shinmoon. His discussion with John Dower of the prospects for 2012 was featured on NHK satellite television as its New Year program (“Kantogen 2012”). His most recent book, co-authored with Satoko Oka Norimatsu, is Islands of Resistance: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield, July 2012.