North Korea’s 100th – To Celebrate or To Surrender?

2 04 2012

by Gavan McCormack (“North Korea’s 100th – To Celebrate or To Surrender?” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 14, No 2, April 2, 2012)

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…

See the full text of this article here…


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.

Korea, Be a Stabliser for Asian Community!

12 12 2009

Prof. Gavan McCormack, “Re-Constructing Asia” (Kyunghyang Shinmun, 07 Dec. 2009)

Much has changed in the Northeast Asian region in that space of two years. The US-centred, US-dominated world – the time of overwhelming US economic, cultural, and military weight on and in the world – fades before our eyes. Its moral credibility in particular has been eroded by aggressive wars, the practices of torture and indiscriminate killing, and the refusal to abide by the principles of international law. However, while in so many respects the US diminishes in importance, in strategic and military terms it remains paramount. The system of regional alliances linking Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines to the US as hub is anachronistic and only the absurd claim that North Korea is a major threat serves to keep it in place.

It we lift our eyes from the changes of the past two years or two decades, and fix them instead on the longue duree of centuries, the pattern is clear. The wave of Western imperialism that washed over Asia for roughly two centuries, based on Europe’s weapons and its primacy in the adoption of industrial capitalism, recedes steadily. The Asian share of global GDP, around half in 1820, is expected to recover to that same level within the next two decades. Asia today gradually resumes the global weight of pre-imperial times. A growing Asian autonomy and identity for itself is apparent. A consensus has steadily grown that security, environmental, and energy problems are shared, and ideological divisions have faded in significance.

But what shape will this new “Asia” take? While bureaucrats formulate pale versions of an expanded free trade zone or a Nato of the East, representative figures within civil society dream of an Asian community beyond the imperialism, war, and Cold War of the past 200 years and beyond the European global hegemony of the past 500, and they seek paths towards a post-capitalist order in harmony with the planet…

…The most recent community proposals have been the East Asian Summit (2005), Kevin Rudd’s (2008) for an “Asia Pacific Community” and Hatoyama Yukio’s (2009) for an “East Asia Community.” All tended to be APEC-like in their inclusiveness and vagueness, and both Japanese and Australian schemes bore the same marks as those of their former conservative forbears: a neo-liberal bent and the reservation of a special place for the US (even though Japan’s Foreign Minister initially denied that that would be the case with the Hatoyama project).

There are three problems with such proposals. First, something to which everybody belongs ceases to be a community. If the US must be part of an Asian community, must not China, Japan, and Korea also belong to NAFTA and the EU? When today Washington insists on getting “an invitation” to any “East Asian Community” (as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell did in October), it displays its fear of challenge to its global hegemonism. Polite dissent is the appropriate response.

Secondly, good relations do not depend on shared identity, even less on dominance and subordination, but rather on difference and respect. An Asia that has a shared view of its identity and global role and can articulate it to the US would better serve global stability and peace and better share global responsibilities with the US than an Asia forever subordinate and divided. It would articulate its own interests, but that is what communities do.

Thirdly, a different approach to global economic and security concerns is necessary precisely because of the disastrous failures of US-centred neo-liberalism on the one hand and militarist hegemonism on the other. Asia needs to maintain a certain distance from the US in order to generate and project a different perspective and make a distinctive contribution to constructing a new global order…

…The civic, humanist energy that long radiated from its democratic revolution (undermining bureaucratic and statist agendas on all sides, not least to the North) pulses less vigorously. There are of course reasons for this, but it is up to Korean civil society now to regain its momentum and to commit itself again to the great tasks of community, value, and meaning. Korea has been, and I have no doubt will become once again, a pole-star pointing towards a future democratic, citizen-led Asian or East Asian community.

See the full text of this article here…

Andrei Lankov vs. Gavan McCormack discussing North Korea on ABC Radio

3 09 2009
Gavan McCormack

Gavan McCormack


Andrei Lankov

ABC’s LateNighteLive (20 aUGUST 2009)

Bill Clinton’s successful negotiation the release of two American journalists from a North Korean prison has been heralded as a sign that North Korea is interested in thawing out its relationship with the rest of the world. Clinton’s visit was also the first time in ages that Kim Il Jong has been seen alive. And this week, the North announced a few compromises with South Korea – including the resumption of limited tourism and a family reunion program.

Andrei Lankov
Professor at Kookmin University in South Korea.

Gavan McCormack
Emeritus professor at the ANU