In what has been perceived as a positive sign, China and Russia have both expressed their concern over North Korea’s plans to launch a satellite into orbit between 10-22 December. It will mark the isolationist state’s second such attempt in 2012, following an apparently failed launch in April, and raises new questions about their space and nuclear aspirations. North Korea announced plans for the launch last weekend and although it declared that its efforts are peaceful and scientific in nature, the announcement has triggered a flurry of speculation that long-range (and possibly nuclear-tipped) intercontinental ballistic missiles are under development. South Korea—with whom the North has shared an uneasy peace since the end of hostilities in 1953—recently revealed that the first of three stages of the rocket have already been installed at the Sohae launch facility on the north-west coast and the remainder should be assembled within days.
“We strongly appeal to the North Korean government to reconsider the decision to launch the rocket,” said a member of Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement earlier this week, noting that such an event would contradict resolutions imposed on the totalitarian regime by the United Nations Security Council. A spokesman for China’s own Foreign Ministry added that the launch plans were “provocative” and carried the potential to “threaten peace and security in the region.”
To date, North Korea’s Kwangmyŏngsŏng—or “Brilliant Star”—satellite program has been shrouded in mystery and rumor, with many observers doubting that anything has yet been placed into orbit. According to North Korea Academy of Sciences, the decision to develop it was made in the 1980s and was accelerated by South Korea’s successful launch of the Uribyol-1 satellite in the summer of 1992. Six years later, on 31 August 1998, it was reported that a three-stage Paektusan rocket, derived from an intermediate-range ballistic missile, flew from a satellite launching ground in Musudan-ri on the north-east coast of North Korea with the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite. However, no objects were tracked in orbit by NORAD or Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops, and it was suggested that the Paektusan’s solid-fueled third stage motor ruptured. Although it is possible that Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 achieved orbital velocity, the failure apparently caused it to plunge directly back to Earth.
Since then, as many as three further attempts have been made to loft an orbital payload, all of which are acknowledged as failures outside North Korea. A suborbital test in July 2006 failed after just 40 seconds in flight, and Japanese sources suggested that it crashed into the Sea of Japan. More recently, in April 2009, a newer rocket, the Unha-3 (“Galaxy”), allegedly boosted the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite from Musudan-ri, in a move which met stiff condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, as it breached the terms of Resolution 1718 which bans North Korea from testing ballistic missiles. The U.S. Northern Command revealed that the first stage of the Unha fell into the Sea of Japan and the others—and, apparently, the payload, too—into the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent analyses indicated that the rocket impacted 2,390 miles east of Musudan-ri, although North Korea has strenuously denied these claims and continues to assert to this day that Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 successfully entered orbit.
Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 was described as an experimental communications satellite which allegedly entered an orbit of 300 x 880 miles, inclined at 40.6 degrees to the equator, and taking 104 minutes to circle the globe. North Korea reported that its transmitter played the “Song of General Kim Il-Sung” and the “Song of General Kim Jong-Il” and postage stamps released shortly afterwards indicated a payload with solar panels, a propulsion device, and communications antennas and appendages. “The successful satellite launch, symbolic of the leaping advance made in the nation’s space science and technology,” read a North Korean statement, “was conducted against the background of the stirring period when a high-pitched drive for bringing about a fresh great revolutionary surge is underway throughout the country to open the gate to a great prosperous and powerful without fail by 2012, the centenary of birth of President Kim Il-Sung.” A mass rally followed in Pyongyang and North Korea threatened further nuclear tests if the United Nations Security Council failed to apologize for its “unbearable insult” and withdraw its condemnation.
Many nations around the world—with the notable exception of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe—expressed their concern for the destabilizing effects of North Korea’s actions. Russia concurred with the United States that Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 had not entered orbit and “simply is not there” and eight days later, on 13 April 2009, the Security Council issued a presidential statement, condemning the act as a violation of Resolution 1718. Pyongyang responded by accusing the United Nations of meddling in its “peaceful” attempts to develop a civilian space program and interfering with its effort to explore space under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. North Korea withdrew in disgust from the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear program with South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan.
On 13 April 2012, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3—reportedly a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite—roared aloft from the 2.3-square-mile Sohae launch site on the Cholsan Peninsula of north-western North Korea, overlooking the Yellow Sea. Its Unha-3 launch was timed to coincide with the centenery of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, but failed when the rocket broke up and its remains fell into the sea. Surprisingly, North Korea admitted that the mission had been a failure. In response, the United States condemned the launch as a “provocative action” and suspended its 240,000-ton food aid package to North Korea.
Last weekend’s announcement of another launch in the coming days from Sohae once more ramps up the tension in the region, as well as providing possible vindication of the theory that North Korean engineers have resolved the problem which doomed Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3. “Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is a direct violation of UN Security Council Resolutions,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “Devoting scarce resources to the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles will only further isolate and impoverish North Korea.”