People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 01

January 06, 2013





On North Korean Satellite Launch


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE successful launch of a North Korean satellite on December 12 is being generally interpreted as a message by Pyongyang to the international community that it is determined to chart its own course despite the decades of sanctions and military threats from the West. The successful launch of a three stage rocket, carrying a weather satellite into space, coincided with the first death anniversary of the former leader, Kim Jong Il. The year 2012 also marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s first president, Kim Il-Sung.


There were huge celebrations in Pyongyang after the North Korean authorities announced that the 90 kg satellite --- “Shining Star 3” --- was successfully placed in orbit after years of endeavour. In the last 14 years, attempts at launching satellites had failed. In early 2012, a satellite launch had failed dramatically and that too in full international media glare.




The West has chosen to ignore the success of the satellite launch and has, instead, bitterly criticised the launch. The US and its allies in the region have characterized the space launch as yet another illustration of North Korea’s blatant disregard for international norms. The West has been claiming that the satellite launch was a barely disguised test for a long range missile that could one day have the potential of hitting targets in continental United States. For many days after the launch, western governments and the media barely mentioned the satellite that was successfully placed in orbit. Instead, they talked of an “object” that the rocket was carrying.


North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, has already proved several years ago that it is capable of launching Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The “military first” policy of the government in Pyongyang lays great stress on military deterrence. Riki Ellison, an American expert on disarmament, told the New York Times that the satellite launch was a “resounding achievement” for North Korea. The country now becomes the tenth nation in the world to launch a satellite into space. The young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un said in a statement that the launch “further consolidated” the country’s status as “a space power.” The country’s official news agency said that Kim had “stressed the need to continue to launch satellites in the near future.” In September 2012, a panel of top experts and scientists working for the US National Research Council had concluded that a North Korean space launch posed no danger to America’s security interests.  


The US has large military bases in Japan and South Korea, both of them close military allies and implacable foes of the government in North Korea. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have all been vociferous in their criticism of the North Korean satellite launch and have demanded additional sanctions on the country. The launch, statements from many capitals said, is a flagrant violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. The Security Council had passed a resolution calling on North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear programmes.


New Delhi too joined in the chorus of criticism against North Korea though India had itself tested an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) in April 2012. The Obama administration had issued a mild statement at the time urging “all nuclear capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capabilities and continue to discourage action that might destabilize the South Asia region.” India, along with Israel and Pakistan, are all de facto nuclear powers. These countries, like North Korea, have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) but they happen to be in the good books of the West. A statement from the Indian external affairs ministry described the North Korean launch “as an unwarranted action” that “has adversely impacted peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”




Now the West wants the UN Security Council to impose additional punitive sanctions on North Korea but China is most likely to veto any such move. Beijing has indicated that it would be more comfortable with a president’s statement. The president’s statement is considered a much weaker form of condemnation in the UN as compared to the imposition of sanctions. The Chinese foreign ministry in a statement said that “it regrets” the North Korean satellite launch. China had sent two high ranking officials to Pyongyang this year to urge the North to go ahead with its satellite launch. However, according to reports, it was China’s behind the scenes diplomacy that has prevented North Korea from going ahead with a third nuclear test. North Korea is said to have an arsenal of six to twelve nuclear weapons. It has already weaponised plutonium for up to five nuclear warheads. North Korea has also embarked on its own uranium enrichment programme.


Before the North Korean rocket blasted off to space, the US and its allies in the region had put their armies on high alert. The North Korean launch came after the re-election of President Barack Obama and as Japan and South Korea were going to the polls. Right wing parties in South Korea and Japan had made the North Korean satellite launch and the country’s alleged military belligerence a big electoral issue. The victory of the right wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the December 16 elections in Japan has been attributed to a large extent on the tough stance taken by LDP leader, Shinzo Abe, on North Korea. Abe, who will soon be taking over as the prime minister, had reacted angrily to the North Korean satellite launch. “Japan should work together with the international community to adopt a new resolution in the United Nation to strongly condemn North Korea. The rocket launch was outrageous. The international community needs to impose harsh sanctions,” Abe had said on the campaign trail.


Abe has been trying to stoke Japanese nationalism by playing up disputes with the country’s neighbours. He is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni Shrine where the Japanese go to pay respects to their World War Two heroes.  The other East Asian countries consider them as “war criminals.” Nationalist fervour is not only confined to the Korean peninsula but is going viral all over East Asia. Japan is also embroiled in territorial disputes with South Korea and China.




Tensions in the Korean peninsula escalated dangerously after the election of Lee Myung-bak as the South Korean president five years ago. Under him, South Korea had junked the “sunshine policy” that the two previous governments had implemented vis-à-vis the North. The policy of détente also involved giving the North generous amounts of aid and opening up channels of communications. Pyongyang had tacitly agreed to put its nuclear and missile programs on hold in exchange for financial aid. The tough line adopted by President Lee boomeranged on the South as the North toughened its diplomatic and military stance. In 2010, a military outpost in a South Korean island briefly came under shelling from the North. In the same year, a South Korean naval ship was allegedly torpedoed, killing around 46 sailors.


Better sense seems to be prevailing now in the South Korean political establishment. Both the two leading candidates for the presidency say that they want better relations with the North. The right wing candidate Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the former South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee, says that she wants to usher in an era of “trustpolitik” with the North. The centre left candidate and the leading challenger, Moon Jae-in, has said that he would resume bilateral aid to the North without preconditions if elected. North Korea has been demanding iron clad guarantees from Washington that it will not be attacked. Pyongyang has been asking for direct talks with the US for bringing about demilitarisation of the Korean peninsula. Technically, the two countries are still at war though open military hostilities between the two countries ended in 1953.


The people of North Korea have been going through very tough time for the last decade and a half due to a variety of factors. The most important reason is the punitive sanctions imposed by the West and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the North’s traditional trading partner. An unremitting cycle of drought and floods have complicated the problems for the country.


After Kim Jong-Un took over the leadership of the country after the death of his father late last year, reports coming out of the country have indicated that the economy is showing signs of revival. Attempts at economic reforms, patterned on the Chinese and even Singapore models, are said to be on the anvil.


The government in Pyongyang had declared that 2012 would be a defining year for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said that despite the continuing drought and flooding, the North’s agricultural production has increased by 10 per cent in 2012 though the country still faces a big staple food shortage. Malnutrition is also a problem. The new leadership that has taken over seems to be working very hard to improve the quality of life of the average citizen despite the adverse circumstances. At the spectacular rally staged in Pyongyang to commemorate the first death anniversary of Kim Jong Il in the second week of December, Kim Ki-nam, a senior Polit Bureau member said that the successful launching of the satellite during “turbulent times” showed the determination of the country “to make a strong dash for victory” under the “refined leadership of Dear Comrade Kim Jong-Un.