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The North Korean satellite launch: engagement is the way forward

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In Brief

On 12 December 2012 North Korea successfully placed a satellite in orbit.

Criticism from its neighbours to the south and to the east, as well as across the Pacific Ocean, overwhelmed celebrations in Pyongyang over this technological success.


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The launch by a ‘defiant’ North Korea, wrote the Japan Times on 13 December, ‘marks a significant boost in Pyongyang’s quest for ballistic missiles that could hit Japan’. And local Los Angeles news media extended the missile’s capacity to include the United States’ west coast. The United States and Japan quickly called for yet further sanctions to punish North Korea for its defiance of international law.

So, as in the past, a genuine need for global concern has been answered with inappropriate and ineffective demands for punishment. Yet, the hard reality is that focusing attention toward what the latest technological breakthrough allows North Korea to do deflects attention from the fact that this road is one that the communist state’s adversaries, either directly or indirectly, have long since trodden.

There is little doubt that North Korean missile or nuclear tests require immediate attention. As US Air Force officer, Brian Weeden, argues in his analysis of this launch, though satellite launches are distinctive from missile launches, success in either test reveals the technological capacity of the other. The recent launching also advances Pyongyang closer toward developing a delivery system for a nuclear weapon. North Korea emphasised the peaceful intention of the launch (thus acting in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that ‘outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States’). Kim Jong-un was reported as saying that the launch ‘demonstrated that the country has reached the highest level in terms of cutting-edge science and technology’. North Korea is also aware of a satellite’s military capabilities. Indeed, the United States has obtained much of its intelligence on North Korea, including the state’s advancement of nuclear programs in the early 1990s, from the satellites that pass over its territory. The launch violated UN resolutions 1718 and 1874 — both imposed on North Korea after it tested nuclear weapons in 2007 and 2009, which prohibit North Korea from launching ballistic missiles. The satellite launch, apparently, is also among the restrictions stipulated by these resolutions.

In the past, the United States, Japan and South Korea have pushed for sanctions against North Korea after the state conducted missile or nuclear tests. This response has produced no significant results, nor have sanctions convinced North Korea that a behavioural change is in its interests. The time has come to try a different approach, one alternative being a return to an approach that demonstrated signs of success in the past: positive engagement through negotiations.

Negotiations in the past have proven to be tedious and rocky. Yet they alone have drawn the North Korean regime into a cooperative dialogue. In 1994 and 1998 the US succeeded in gaining North Korean signatures on two major agreements that froze its nuclear reactor and long-range missile programs. The important condition of the latter agreement placed compliance contingent on continued negotiations. George W. Bush’s decision to halt engagement with this regime influenced the quick demise of previous efforts. Within a few years North Korea developed into a nuclear state, but it still sought dialogue. Its first attempt was with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro over the abductee issue, and then with the Bush administration in 2008 when it imploded a nuclear cooling tower to demonstrate a willingness to once again freeze, and perhaps dismantle, its nuclear program if offered attractive incentives. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has demonstrated little interest in engaging North Korean leaders to resolve the two state’s differences.

Newly elected leaders in Japan and South Korea, and Barack Obama’s return to the presidency in the United States, provides a fresh chance to rekindle efforts to positively engage North Korea. Should these leaders embark along a path of engagement, hawk elements will surely repeat their claim that doing so rewards the regime for its bad behaviour. This claim, however, is shortsighted. It draws on the North Korean potential gained by its successful satellite launch without acknowledging the gains that these same states have enjoyed by using the same technology to threaten North Korean sovereignty. These negotiations, rather than demanding immediate North Korean capitulation as a precondition for engagement, should be conducted in a give-and-take arrangement that builds trust by distributing benefits to both sides of the negotiation table. Developing a cooperative relationship with North Korea, as well as other adversaries, increases the chances that these states will utilise their rights as a sovereign state for peaceful, rather than military, purposes.

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

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