North Korea's Satellite Diplomacy

7 MINS READApr 13, 2012 | 01:22 GMT
Satellite image of North Korea's Sohae (West Sea) Satellite Launching Station

North Korea reportedly launched its Unha-3 satellite launch vehicle at 7:39 a.m. on April 13. The missile broke up within the atmosphere shortly after launch, a U.S. Defense Department official said. The satellite launch (graphic) has surrounding nations once again reassessing their ability to influence Pyongyang's behavior. Before the launch, Japan renewed sanctions, the United States decided to suspend delivery of new food aid, and Washington and Seoul were considering requesting condemnation and potential sanctions from the United Nations — though China and likely Russia will work to moderate such pressure. 

But international attention could be one of the core drivers of North Korea's decision to launch. Combined with the ascent of Pyongyang's new leadership and other factors, the event has opened an opportunity for the country to improve its relationships with international actors without appearing to compromise its independence. North Korea has been preparing for a diplomatic offensive since long before the launch was announced in hopes of expanding international economic ties and reducing its dependence on China. The international community's response to the launch will influence the degree to which Pyongyang pursues diplomatic gains in place of once again escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The small Kwangmyongsong-3 earth observation satellite was atop the Unha-3 launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County in North Pyongan province on the western coast. It was launched southwestward in an attempt to insert it into a polar or sun-synchronized orbit. This was a major shift from three previous launches (all were failures), which were launched from an east coast facility and overflew — or would have — Japanese territory.

Much is made of the satellite launch vehicle because of the inherent dual-use nature of the technology for long-range ballistic missiles as well as the recent succession of Kim Jong Un after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, though Stratfor believes that the preparations for this launch began while Kim Jong Il was still alive. Pyongyang may attempt to claim success (as it has in the past with previous failures), but the failure makes it more likely that the North will test another nuclear device. Visible and intentionally demonstrative preparatory steps for this had begun before the launch window even opened.

The other big question was how the United States and the international community would respond to this launch. North Korea did everything possible to set this launch up as above-board behavior by a law- and international norm-abiding member of the world community, essentially giving the world the opportunity to accept it as such or respond more aggressively. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already threatened to take the matter to the United Nations Security Council, which will convene April 13.

On the surface, the satellite launch is part of the large-scale Juche 101 celebrations, which mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. The celebrations are largely aimed at a domestic audience; they attempt to highlight North Korea's independence and the continuity and strength of the Kim family's leadership. The use of advanced technology — the satellite launch — is intended to underline North Korea's ability to progress scientifically in spite of international isolation (a subtle message to outside observers that a policy of isolation and sanctions is ineffective and should be discontinued).

The launch also fits within the framework of the planned transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, which was expected to take place this year even if Kim Jong Il had not died. By moving forward with the planned launch, Kim Jong Un could demonstrate North Korea's continuity of intent and action and shape a new image as a leader impervious to foreign pressure.

But even before announcing the satellite launch, North Korea took extensive efforts to downplay the perceived threat it posed. North Korean representatives told the United States about a planned 2012 launch before Kim Jong Il's death in 2011, emphasizing that the launch would be primarily a showcase of technology coinciding with the national celebrations — not an act of brinkmanship. Prior to announcing the launch, Pyongyang negotiated an agreement with the United States in February in which the North declared a moratorium on nuclear activity and missile tests while promising to open North Korean nuclear sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, Pyongyang essentially received enriched peanut butter. The message was clear: Pyongyang was willing to trade more in exchange for less from the United States.

Pyongyang's Diplomatic Offensive

North Korea hoped that the satellite launch would be seen as distinct from past missile tests. The country filed the proper paperwork with international bodies and called for international observers, including from the United States, to attend the launch. Pyongyang also announced that the satellite would launch from a new facility on the country's west coast, with a new flight path that would not take the rocket through Japanese airspace or over highly populated Japanese territory. While the launch could contribute to the development of dual-use technology, it had a very different pattern of preparation and behavior than past North Korean tests.

Pyongyang, through its own peculiar negotiating style, has long been laying the groundwork for a planned diplomatic offensive beginning in 2012 — one reminiscent of their rapid expansion of international diplomatic ties and economic cooperation with South Korea in 1998 after the North's unexpected first satellite launch attempt. The country is considering the development of additional special economic zones, and it wants to court potential investors beyond China, Russia and South Korea. This is not to say that North Korea has an interest in major economic reforms — or that a real "opening" is in the works — but rather that the country hopes to slowly move beyond the constraints of its post-Cold War isolation.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the shift of Chinese interest toward economic ties with South Korea and the United States, Pyongyang has managed a relatively effective strategy of survival. But attempts to move beyond mere survival — while preserving the elite's central role and avoiding the political and social disruptions seen in the opening of other former Communist Bloc countries — remain constrained by the North's relationship with the United States.

Moving Beyond Survival Strategy

Over the past decade, North Korea has grown increasingly dependent on China — a country that from Pyongyang's perspective frequently does not have North Korea's best interests in mind. Attempts to attract European and Indian investment have produced minimal results. Aside from China, Russia and South Korea, most countries are concerned that their investments could be held hostage by rapid shifts in North Korean policy or moves by the United States to increase sanctions on the North.

The North Korean regime can survive without expanding its economic partnerships, but it would be at the cost of becoming even more dependent on (and influenced by) China. Pyongyang sees this relationship as one moving toward increasing North Korean subservience to China and steadily eroding independence, both outcomes it wishes to avoid.

The 100th anniversary celebrations and the new leadership in Pyongyang provide an opportunity for North Korea to shift some of its foreign relations without appearing to compromise the integrity of its independence. The decision to go ahead with the satellite launch demonstrates continuity and resistance to outside pressure, thus allowing Pyongyang to portray any changes in its relationship with the international community as concessions by others, not by the North.

The Possibility of Progress

North Korea is now broadcasting two "options" for the international community, both predicated on how the world responds to the satellite launch.

On one hand, Pyongyang is suggesting, via channels in New York and Berlin, that now is the time for significant progress in U.S.-North Korean relations. The United States should back this shift, they suggest, rather than give entrenched "hard-liners" in the North the ability to lock down the country. Pyongyang hopes to convince Washington that progress in relations can match or exceed the 1998-2000 era when the North re-established diplomatic ties with several Western countries, opened the Kaesong special economic zone with the South and hosted the inter-Korean summit.

But on the other hand, North Korea has also suggested — via its Japanese channels, in which messages are often more confrontational — that a significantly negative U.S. response to the satellite launch will return North Korea to the pattern of behavior seen in 2009-2010, when the North tested a nuclear device and missiles and engaged in a series of military actions against the South in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). Such a path is extremely tense, of course, and would raise concerns of a regional war, even if the North has thus far known its neighbors' limits and avoided provoking a military response. Instead of achieving a new level of stability, it would raise the potential for miscalculation, delay the cycle of discussions and increase the cost to North Korea's negotiating partners of a return to the status quo.

In short, Pyongyang is portraying the Western response to the satellite launch as a test of North Korea's familiar terms: If the United States respects the satellite launch as nonthreatening, Pyongyang will engage in negotiations aimed at replacing the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement. But if the United States tries to punish North Korea, Pyongyang can once again raise tensions in northeast Asia, even if never far enough to provoke a military reaction from Washington. Though North Korea can survive either path with China's financial support, Pyongyang appears currently to have stronger incentive and desire for the former.

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