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Why North Korea launched its rocket

By John Sudworth
Korea correspondent, BBC News

Protestors in South Korea
North Korea's rocket launch sparked protests in South Korea

One of the world's most isolated states, North Korea was hoping to become a member of a very exclusive club.

If North Korea's attempt to put an object into orbit had succeeded, then this impoverished country, hidden behind one of the last Cold War frontiers, would have joined the handful of countries with the independent capability to launch their own satellites.

North Korea gave prior warning of the launch and said all along that it was using it as part of the peaceful pursuit of a space programme, as is its right under international law.

It has, as was to be expected, already claimed that its satellite is safely in orbit.

Yet there may be mocking sniggers. The US military says the satellite failed to make orbit, splashing down instead in the Pacific Ocean.

But for the US - and North Korea's regional neighbours - the success or failure of the satellite was simply not the issue.

Their concern about the launch has kept their spy agencies scrutinising North Korea's east-coast rocket base for months.

Navy vessels from the US, Japan and South Korea, deployed off the North Korean coast and equipped with sophisticated radar and anti-missile weaponry, will have monitored the rocket as it passed overhead.

The concern was two-fold.

That the launch might go wrong in a way that threatened Japanese territory, and that this was an illegal act designed primarily to enhance North Korea's missile capability.

Dual use

As a general rule, any launch vehicle designed to put a satellite into orbit could also be used as a long distance delivery system for a warhead.

In North Korea's case, the technology is thought to be almost identical.

What is believed to be a version of the same rocket was launched in July 2006, without warning, but on that occasion, North Korea admitted afterwards that it had been a straightforward missile test.

And some observers question why a country that struggles even to feed its own people would try to develop its own independent space programme.

If it really wanted a communications satellite, they argue, a far cheaper option would be to pay someone else, perhaps their Chinese allies, to do it for them.


Honestly, without its nuclear and missile programmes North Korea would look like an absolutely run-of-the-mill third-world dictatorship, although an unusually nasty, unusually brutal and exceptionally inefficient one

Professor Andrei Lankov, Kookmin University

Despite the enormous investment - some estimates suggest that a single launch costs North Korea at least $30m (£20m) - the level of technological achievement is akin to that reached by the US and the Soviet Union decades ago.

The conclusion drawn by much of the international community is that the satellite is simply a fig leaf for the real purpose, the development of the launch vehicle itself which is, no more and no less, a long-range missile.

North Korea is forbidden from pursuing this kind of technology by a UN resolution, passed after the 2006 missile test.

So its opponents claim the satellite launch is in breach of this resolution, hence the strong international condemnation.

Nukes and missiles

Many analysts believe that North Korea would use proof of a successful satellite launch for a number of purposes.

Firstly as a kind of shop window for its military prowess, allowing it to boost sales of its rocket technology to other countries, again, in defiance of UN sanctions.

But the real advantage is the raising of its threat level, which it will seek to exploit in international negotiations.

The rocket used in this latest launch could, in theory at least, be adapted to travel as far as the western United States, albeit carrying a very small payload.

Professor Andrei Lankov, from Seoul's Kookmin University, is in no doubt that this is Pyongyang's real motivation.

"Honestly, without its nuclear and missile programmes North Korea would look like an absolutely run-of-the-mill third-world dictatorship, although an unusually nasty, unusually brutal and exceptionally inefficient one," he told me.

"The main reason why the news about North Korea can sometimes be found on the front pages of the worldwide press is because of their nukes and their missiles, without which nobody would even care about them."

'Political decision'

But regardless of North Korea's true intention there is some debate about the legal position.

Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul based senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, believes it is not as clear cut as Washington suggests.

"Compelling arguments can be made that this is a clear violation of UN resolutions," he told me.

"Nevertheless, all states do have the sovereign right to the peaceful exploration of outer space. So it comes down to something that cannot really be resolved legally, it comes down to a political decision."

And that's where the difficulty might lie.

The UN Security Council meets later to decide a response.

But a veto-wielding China, one of North Korea's oldest allies, might be keen to soften any proposed punishment.



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