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The DPRK’s satellite launch: teasing opportunity from crisis

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In Brief

The Korean Committee for Space Technology, the space agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), confirmed on 16 March the DPRK’s plan to launch a Kwangmyongsong (Lodestar) 3 ‘earth observation satellite’ to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth.

The proposed launch has been criticised as yet another disruption to reconciliation efforts on the Korean Peninsula, as the announcement came just weeks after the DPRK agreed to freeze its nuclear program and refrain from testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.


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This was to be in exchange for the US providing 240 million tons of food aid. It also reaffirmed that the US does not harbour hostile intentions toward North Korea.

It is clear that plans for the launch had been publicized well in advance, and perhaps were discussed during negotiations.

The US State Department nevertheless claims the decision to launch a ‘ballistic missile’ violates the DPRK’s obligations under past UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and threatens regional security. It sees the decision as inconsistent with the progress the two states recently made and has suggested that a launch might even void the current deal. Both Tokyo and Seoul joined Washington in condemning the decision, and urged Pyongyang to reconsider its plan. The Japanese press accused the DPRK of ‘saying yes and no in the same breath’ by ‘exploit[ing] loopholes’. And the Japanese government announced it would ‘intercept the … missile … if it poses a direct threat to Japan’.

One key issue separating the two sides is whether the object the DPRK plans to launch is a rocket or a missile. The DPRK claims that a peaceful satellite launch conforms in letter and spirit with the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which it says ‘stands above the UNSC resolution’. Washington, along with Seoul and Tokyo, sees the launch as a belligerent missile test aimed at advancing the DPRK’s nuclear weapons delivery capacity. Depending on perspective, then, the DPRK is either (once again) disrupting the peace process or simply walking a path that many states, including Japan, have walked before.

Indeed, Japan has become a particularly active participant in the satellite launching business, an industry from which its government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries hope to profit handsomely. It thus seems rather duplicitous of Japan to claim the DPRK launch is a threat to its security. The Korean Central News Agency, for one, anticipated such ‘intolerable double standards’ when it insisted the DPRK has a right to join this ‘worldwide trend to launch and use a working satellite [which is] urgently needed for the country’s economic development’.

Similar examples of peaceful agreements being offset by negative acts or words dot the landscape of US–DPRK relations over the past two decades. In 1991, for example, the DPRK responded positively to a decision by the US to remove its nuclear weapons from the Republic of Korea (ROK) and cancel Team Spirit war exercises by signing important agreements with the ROK and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and halting nuclear fuel reprocessing. But this warm spell soon cooled after the US restarted Team Spirit exercises in 1992. The DPRK responded by evicting IAEA inspectors and resuming nuclear reprocessing.

Relations thawed once more in October 1994 when the two adversaries signed the Agreed Framework, but froze back over after the US accused the DPRK of replacing its plutonium-based nuclear program — halted by the agreement — with a uranium-based program. Like the present dispute, this one centred on a DPRK initiative that only indirectly violated an agreement between it and the US, but which disrupted the general spirit of their understanding. Observers of the Korean Peninsula explain these sequences as being either characteristic of the DPRK’s negotiating style, a reflection of the state’s irrational manner or as a manifestation of inner struggles between its hawk and dove factions.

A more careful examination of the DPRK’s interactions with its adversaries over the past 20 years reveals the state to be quite rational and rather predictable. It is most likely that the primary reason the DPRK continues to seek engagement with the US is the dire economic situation it faces — and the US exploits this weakness by attempting to maximise concessions at a minimal cost. Yet the DPRK has consistently refused to capitulate to terms it believes are unreasonable and threatening to its very existence. It has often pledged to scrap its nuclear and missile programs should the US demonstrate its peaceful intentions by negotiating an end to the Korean War, by forging normal diplomatic relations and by ending economic sanctions. The DPRK also insists on advancing the two states’ goals simultaneously rather than having nuclear disarmament serve as a prerequisite to negotiations, as the US has so often insisted.

The US is in a much better position to put forth an olive branch to test the DPRK’s sincerity. Like those of the Agreed Framework, initial concessions could contingently answer the DPRK’s demands with the understanding that the US could quickly rescind all concessions should the DPRK renege on its promises to disarm. The most recent agreement represents a positive (but cautious) first step in this direction. Working with the DPRK to verify the facts behind the planned launch and to ensure it is conducted safely would demonstrate a more productive attitude toward resolving outstanding tensions. And it would certainly be more advisable than simply using the launch as a convenient pretext for thwarting this most recent thawing in US–DPRK relations.

Mark Caprio is Professor of Korean History at the College of Intercultural Communication, Rikkyo University, Japan.

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