Why North Korea's satellite launch is troubling

Story highlights

  • North Korea launched a satellite into space over the weekend
  • Joan Johnson-Freese: Provocation, defiance remain key elements of North Korean foreign policy

Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the author of "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space." The views expressed are hers alone and do not represent the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

(CNN)Pyongyang celebrated with fireworks, and a North Korean government spokesman dismissed international efforts to block the successful launch of the country's second satellite as nothing more than a "puppy barking at the moon." Grandiosity, provocation and defiance clearly remain the key elements of North Korean foreign policy. But while claiming the satellite launch is a peaceful use of outer space in accordance with international norms, the international community rightly sees it differently.

Though the intended use of a spacecraft cannot be discerned based solely on its capabilities, the existence of a spacecraft is difficult to hide. Consequently, North Korea has become adept at taking advantage of the dual-use nature of space technology, meaning technology with both civil and military utility, mixed with sometimes nonsensical propaganda, to develop long-range ballistic missiles.
Joan Johnson-Freese
While North Korea has a stable of missiles capable of reaching much of South Korea and Japan, it has yet to flight test any missiles capable of reaching a distance of more than about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles). It still hasn't, officially. But, North Korea has attempted to launch a satellite into orbit five times, and because the technology is basically the same, North Korea can learn a considerable amount about how to develop a successful ballistic missile from a successful satellite launch.
    The only prior successful North Korean satellite launch was in December 2012, and even though the satellite reached orbit, it has appeared non-functioning. North Korea claimed the satellite transmitted the revolutionary "Song of General Kim Il Sung" and "Song of General Kim Jong Il" after achieving orbit, but that claim has never been substantiated by observers outside North Korea (and there are many who pay close attention to North Korean space activities).
    In 2009, North Korea also proudly proclaimed a successful satellite launch and said that the satellite was transmitting revolutionary songs back to Earth. North Korean officials were, then too, the only ones hearing such songs. That was not surprising because, as tracked by both the United States and South Korea, the satellite had failed to reach orbit and dropped into the sea.
    This time, however, U.S. Strategic Command, which tracks spacecraft in orbit, says it has detected two items in association with the North Korean launch -- a satellite and the final stage of the rocket booster. Say what they will, North Korean launches, failures and successes, are known. If they can communicate with the satellite, North Korea will become more adept at satellite operations, a future concern as an increasing number of countries have shown interest in "counterspace" operations capable of threatening satellites of other countries. In the nearer term, the success of this mission puts North Korea one step closer to having an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. That, considered alongside North Korea's recent purported test of a hydrogen bomb, has the international community rightly alarmed, given North Korea's often, at best, erratic behavior.
    An emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council has been held in conjunction with the launch over the weekend, resulting in condemnation of North Korea's violation of U.N. resolutions that ban it from testing ballistic missile technology -- under any guise -- and a pledge of "significant measures" in response. What those measures will be, however, remains to be seen.
    Some U.N. officials have suggested that further economic sanctions on the already largely isolated country would be an appropriate response. But China, North Korea's most important ally, has voiced objections to that option. After all, China is North Korea's primary trading partner and the country's main source of food, arms and energy. It has also helped to sustain Kim Jong Un's regime and been historically opposed to harsh international sanctions on North Korea as it fears an influx of refugees across their almost 900-mile, porous border if the regime were to collapse. The recent launch, however, puts pressure on China to get North Korea in line with the international community, a job China has become increasingly weary of given its own financial woes and North Korea's near constant antics.
    The launch also complicates already prickly Asian geopolitical relations. True, the satellite is reported to be tumbling in orbit, meaning that North Korea is unlikely to be able to make any use of it. But the launch will still likely expedite plans for a build up of U.S. missile defense systems in Asia. Specifically, U.S. and South Korea officials have already said they will consider deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, to the Korean peninsula "at the earliest possible date." China, at odds with the United States over the former's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, objects to placement of a system that includes radar capable of penetrating Chinese territory. China is also South Korea's biggest trading partner. Japan and Australia are, for their part, also considering what responses each might take against North Korea, as part of a United Nations response or unilaterally.
    Against this backdrop, North Korean officials continue to spout provocative declarations about intended further launches. And the reality is that nuclear and missile technology in the hands of such a narcissistic national actor tests the mettle of the international community to address challenges to peace, and of China to be a responsible part of that community and do its part.
    Hopefully both will step up forcefully.