Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.12.27

North Korea's Missile Launch

On December 12, North Korea announced that it had successfully launched "a satellite" into orbit from its Tongchang-ri Launch Facility. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) acknowledged the successful launch of a missile. During the Cold War, NORAD was established as a U.S.-Canada joint defense mechanism to defend the North American continent from a Soviet nuclear attack. It remains alert against any attack on North America, such as by missiles. The language of NORAD's announcement was measured insofar as it described that the missile deployed "an object" that appeared to achieve orbit. It does not seem as if North Korea's "satellite" is emitting any signals, in fact, news reports indicate that it is tumbling and is dead, but even if this is of minor significance, the fact remains that the most advanced detection system in the world has now confirmed the successful launch of "a satellite" by North Korea - a testament to the rapid progress that North Korea has made in a short period of time since its April 2012 failure.

The majority of the initial reports of the test launch stated that North Korea had "launched a missile", but, after a while, to describe what was launched into orbit, most described it as "a satellite", using quotation marks. NORAD described the launch of "an object." So the test launch is described in several ways - as "a missile" and "a rocket", and as for what was launched into orbit - "a satellite" and "an object" - but what characterization is most appropriate?

Calling it the launch of "a missile" has consequences under the United Nations Security Council resolution that imposed a ban on "any launch using ballistic missile technology." Even if North Korea were to describe its launch as that of "a satellite," the launch would still be regarded as a missile launch under the resolution. Most media reports described the launch as "a missile," again making use of quotation marks because there is no concrete evidence that it can be defined as a missile.

The question of how best to describe the launch most accurately would not have been an issue for so long as North Korea's rocket technology remained immature and its efforts to launch "a satellite" had failed. With North Korea having successfully carried out a launch, however, one that NORAD has now acknowledged, one cannot describe it as "a missile" when something was launched into orbit. This led NORAD to describe the missile as deploying "an object." Describing the matter as "an object" is perfectly accurate, as, according to NORAD, it is inactive.

North Korea is likely to launch "a satellite" again, most likely several times, in disregard of the will of the international community. The objects that North Korea may launch in the future will likely have more advanced technologies and may transmit music and video, just like genuine "active satellites." Can we then call them mere "objects"? For the international community to decide, based on North Korea's ignoring the will of the international community, to refrain from calling them "satellites" - which would thereby mean that their launch mechanism is a "rocket" and not a "missile" - is questionable.

Whether or not North Korea's high-performance rockets are used to launch satellites, it is unreasonable to prohibit North Korea from launching them just because they use the same technology as missiles. The United Nations adopted its resolution, however, because North Korea has repeatedly engaged in threatening behavior, including the launch of missiles in defiance of the Pyongyang Declaration, and so on. In this regard, North Korea itself is responsible for the stringent demands of the international community.

Most expect that the situation will deteriorate if North Korea makes repeated launches, but as described above, if it is clear that North Korea is only launching "satellites", then those launches could be characterized as North Korea simply making a peaceful use of space. In reality, if North Korea wants to be perceived as moving in that direction, then it should not launch a missile. We also need to address the question of how to distinguish the launch of "a satellite" using a rocket from a missile launch.

This time around, North Korea pretended that it had technical glitches before it carried out its launch. This was bad behavior by North Korea, but, nonetheless, it seems that North Korea is gaining confidence in its technological capabilities. For its previous launch, it boldly invited foreign reporters to the launch site. It again defiantly tried to grab the world's attention, this time by announcing that it was facing technical glitches. In our view, this audaciousness is as risky as, or even more risky than, the last test launch. North Korea, however, dared to take such an action, which may indicate that North Korea has some degree of confidence. Some may regard this as typical dangerous adventurism by North Korea, but it seems that we can no longer maintain our fixed idea that North Korea's technology is crude.

Japan's situation is delicate. On the theory that North Korea's "satellite" is dangerous, Japan deployed the most advanced defense missile (PAC3) that the Self Defense Force possesses, in order to encounter and shoot down debris from a mid-air explosion. There is some question whether the same kind of defense posture should be deployed in the future if and when North Korea launches satellites that transmit music and video.

Furthermore, if and when that new environment should come to pass, what role ought Japan to play in shaping international public opinion? Insofar as Japan is the nation most threatened by North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles and because it shares values with western nations, the international community is watching how it reacts and responds.