North Korea and the Meaning of the Missile Launch
By: Stratfor.comFebruary 24, 2009
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North Korea has announced its final preparations for a satellite launch, confirming overseas expectations of another long-range missile test. In openly declaring the launch-after months of allowing foreign satellites to observe preparations-Pyongyang is trying to ensure that there is little justification for attempts to shoot down the missile or implement sanctions on North Korea after the launch. But the public announcement also suggests stronger confidence from North Korea's scientists that the launch will be successful, and it might coincide with the expected revelation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's appointed successor.

A Feb. 24 statement by the Korean Committee of Space Technology says preparations for a North Korean satellite launch are making "brisk headway," and that a successful launch would mark "another giant stride forward in building an economic power." The announcement follows a Feb. 16 statement in the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) replying to U.S. reports that Pyongyang was preparing to launch a long-range missile. In that report, after repeating North Korea's claim to peaceful space development, Pyongyang noted, "One will come to know later what will be launched in the DPRK." Apparently North Korea has decided that later is now.

It is no secret that North Korea has been preparing another test of its long-range missile. U.S., South Korean and Japanese media have been reporting information for months from their respective intelligence agencies of the movement of North Korean missile bodies, the preparation of missile facilities and the construction of telemetry equipment for tracking a launch. North Korea has done little to hide these preparations, has repeatedly announced its right to peaceful development of space, and has praised Iran's recent satellite launch.

Announcing a launch, then, might not be much of a revelation or cause for shock, but it does suggest a higher level of confidence by North Korea's scientists-and a heavier responsibility for success placed upon them by North Korea's leadership. When North Korea carried out its first attempted satellite launch aboard a Taepodong-1 missile on Aug. 31, 1998, there was no public announcement ahead of time, and the only media hint was a KCNA article the same day highlighting the long history of Korean astronomy.

STRATFOR has long noted the close cooperation between North Korea and Iran (as well as Pakistan) on their missile programs. Indeed, even though Iran was the first to succeed in putting a satellite into orbit atop an indigenously designed and built launch vehicle, North Korea very nearly succeeded with its own satellite in 1998. Since then, Tehran has learned a great deal from Pyongyang, and its Safir Omid satellite launch vehicle evinces strong influence from North Korean work with Scud technology.

Because North Korea rarely conducts missile tests, and because of its status as an international pariah, there will be high expectations for this test now that Pyongyang has announced its intention to launch a satellite-much higher than just for the sake of nationalistic pride or demonstrating military technology.

By announcing the launch, North Korea is sending two different messages, one intended for those abroad and another for the domestic audience. First, the announcement is a clear signal to the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and others that Pyongyang will not be pressured into forgoing the launch. Second, by making it explicitly clear that this is a satellite launch and not a ballistic missile test-even though the distinction is largely irrelevant, as the technologies involved are nearly identical-Pyongyang is trying to remove any justification for either intercepting the launch or placing strictures on the regime after the launch. This is particularly the case after Pyongyang watched the nonreaction to Iran's recent satellite launch.

However, the domestic message might be more important. Even though North Korea's missile and nuclear programs have been major topics of discussion abroad, Pyongyang carefully controls the flow of information at home and rarely announces major missile tests ahead of time. In this case, however, North Korea did not just declare its right to launch or give some vague comment about demonstrating its deterrent. Instead, it gave a detailed account of what was coming. The Space Committee statement named the satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 (the first Kwangmyongsong was the failed attempt in 1998), the missile Unha-2 (translated as Galaxy-2, known internationally as the Taepodong-2) and the satellite launch facility as the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, located in Hwadae County, North Hamgyong province, commonly known as the Musudan missile launch facility.

This level of domestic exposure sets the bar higher for the North Korean scientists. Pyongyang did not domestically preannounce the 1998 launch (which failed to place a satellite into orbit, though North Korea claimed it was successful), or the 2006 test of the Taepodong-2, which failed early in its flight. There was speculation that the failure was intentional, and by identifying the current satellite as Kwangmyongsong-2, rather than 3, North Korea is intending to signal that the 2006 missile did not carry a satellite.

Failure of the current planned launch is not acceptable, and publicly announcing the launch suggests that the North Koreans are more confident in its success. Pyongyang has carried out several ground-tests of the new engine system, and the 2006 flight test might have added to the data, as did Iran's satellite launch (even if the Iranian system, based in part on North Korean technology, is not as advanced as the Taepodong-2/Unha-2).

One other signal might well have to do with the much-debated question of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's chosen successor, widely expected to be revealed during the early March Supreme People's Assembly elections. To a large degree, the 1998 launch was a signal that Kim Jong Il had firmly consolidated power, years after the sudden death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994. A launch at this time may reinforce the quiet announcement of Kim's chosen successor, a show of technology despite isolation to welcome the emerging leader.

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