North Korea Plans Missile Test Amid International Tension

With political changes across the region, North Korea must make itself heard again.

A North Korean soldier stands in front of a rocket launch site in Tongchang, April 8
A North Korean soldier stands in front of a rocket launch site in Tongchang, April 8 (AP/David Guttenfelde)

North Korea announced on Saturday that it plans to launch a satellite in the next few weeks. The United States believes that the launch is really a cover for a long range missile test. If it occurs it will be the North’s first since its last test failed in April.

The State Department described the planned “satellite” launch as “highly provocative” and said that it would be in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions which bar the North from conducting tests in ballistic missile technology.

Confirmation of the launch, expected to take place between December 10 and 22, comes days after a high level Chinese delegation visited North Korea and delivered a letter from the newly appointed president Xi Jinping to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The contents of the letter are unknown but China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Li Jianguo, a member of the Politburo, met Kim and expressed China’s desire to “enhance communications and coordination on major global and regional affairs” with its neighbor.

The launch comes at a critical time in the region and around the world.

Presidential elections are due to take place in South Korea in two weeks’ time. Lower house elections will occur in Japan on December 16. Burma, a longtime customer of North Korean missile technology, has taken steps toward democratic reform that will open the country up to the West for the first time in decades. China, its traditional patron, also recently concluded a leadership transition at the highest levels of the Communist Party with many there hoping for further economic reforms.

The North has a history of seeking international attention when news elsewhere, especially in the South, starts to divert the focus from its plight. Indeed, North Korea expert Victor Cha, in a tweet on Saturday, said that while he believes a test will occur, a recent study he participated in showed the North provoking within 12.6 weeks of every South Korean election since 1992.

After President Thein Sein instituted democratic reforms in Burma and held free elections earlier this year, Barack Obama paid an unprecedented visit for a sitting American president to the country. He promised deeper American engagement going forward. Sein pledged to let in international inspections to dispel suspicions of Burma having a secret nuclear program which many suspect North Korea of assisting with. These steps should be causing growing concern in Pyongyang about being cut off from Burma as a supplier.

Following the recent flareup of tensions between Hamas and Israel, many believe that Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has emerged as a potential game changer for missile defense around the world. According to The New York Times, Iron Dome successfully shot down over four hundred rockets headed toward populated areas in Israel, giving it a kill ratio of about 85 percent and generating interest from countries like South Korea about buying it.

Although North Korea’s Unha-3 in this expected test is a long range rocket, which Iron Dome is not equipped to handle yet, such a system in South Korea would nonetheless mitigate the short range threat from the North which has thousands of rockets aimed at it.

As such, it is conceivable that the North Korean military feels the need to demonstrate the effectiveness of its missiles to other potential customers in the face of concerns over losing a vital one in Burma as well as fears that its threat to the South could be eliminated in the near future.

Domestic considerations could also be prompting the test as there are rumblings that the security of the regime is being internally threatened after a report this week by North Korean state media. According to the report, Kim issued orders to security officials to eliminate those “maneuvering behind the scenes to destroy our unity and prompt a riot.”

If these fears are valid, Kim may have been forced to acquiesce to demands by the military to conduct further tests to maintain their support against those plotting against him.