A couple of under-reported observations on North Korea’s rocket launch

North Korea’s successful rocket launch on December 12, 2012 predictably spurred worldwide condemnation and media attention. Many of the reports immediately following the launch were remarkably similar and contained few attempts at alternative interpretations of the launch itself and of its implications. In the following text a couple of rather under-reported observations on the North Korean satellite launch will be presented.

  1. North Korea, surprisingly, became the first of the two Koreas to successfully place a satellite into orbit by utilizing solely indigenous technology. South Korea made unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010 and twice postponed a planned launch in 2012.[1] This undoubtedly comes as a slap in the face for researchers in South Korea’s space program, some of which even claimed that North Korean space technology was “at least 20 years behind the South’s”.[2]

  2. 2012 marks the only time North Korea has conducted two launches in the same year, but more importantly the two launches under Kim Jong-un’s rule have shown a significant difference from the launches under the leadership of Kim Jong-il in that the rockets were launched towards the south and not towards the east. Why is this significant? Because it could indicate that Pyongyang is showing an unprecedented wariness of Tokyo’s concerns and warnings of shooting down the rocket were it to pose a threat to Japan. In this context it’s important to note that southward bound launches present a far bigger challenge than eastward bound launches, both financially (more fuel) and technologically (stronger engine). Due to the centrifugal power generated by the Earth’s rotation (west to east) an eastward bound launch would be given a gravitational boost and thus require far less propellants than launches in other directions (the Earth rotates at a speed of almost 1700 kilometers per hour along the equator). Launching towards the south also presents Pyongyang with another disadvantage: the satellite would orbit around the Earth from south to north instead of following the Earth’s rotation from west to east. This means that the satellite will cross North Korea only a limited number of times a year, making North Korea’s satellite practically useless for weather observation purposes.

    By launching the rockets towards the south, North Korea has thus demonstrated a willingness to take a more technologically challenging, expensive and ineffective approach arguably in order to ease Japanese concerns. This is a new development since Kim Jong-un came to power. It could of course also be interpreted as North Korea’s lack of confidence in its own technology and resultant concerns that an eastward bound launch could fall down over Japan and create an unfavorable international environment.

  3. North Korea did indeed place a satellite into orbit. What implications will this have on the language of future references to North Korean rockets? Japan, for example, has up until now consistently referred to North Korea’s launches as “the missile which North Korea calls a ‘satellite’” [北朝鮮による「人工衛星」と称するミサイル ][3], implying that North Korea has had no intentions to place a satellite into orbit, but simply has used the satellite claim as a pretext to test missile technology. This may still be true, but North Korea nonetheless succeeded in placing a satellite into orbit and future references to North Korean launches will possibly be changed. If the international community changes its vocabulary from “missile” to “satellite”, it will perhaps become increasingly difficult to deny North Korea the right to test its rocket technology for use in a peaceful space program, especially as long as South Korea pursues exactly the same goal.

  4. Regarding North Korea’s motives for the launch, there has been a tendency among analysts to over-analyze the reasons for North Korea’s launch. The multiple power transitions in the region might of course have played a role, but what “message” could North Korea possibly have hoped to convey to the various regional actors who all have differing interests and probably interpret the launch in widely different ways? “Don’t forget about us”, could that be it? North Korea hardly needs satellites to prevent its fading into oblivion. If North Korea’s launch was a message, it seems unlikely that it was addressed to other countries than the US. The launch demonstrated once and for all that North Korea has the potential (however limited) to reach US mainland. For Japan and South Korea the launch does not pose a new threat as both these countries allegedly have been within the North Korean missile range since 1993.[4] If this was a message, it was aimed at the US. This also correlates to North Korea’s warning in October that North Korean missiles could reach “not only South Korea and Japan, but also the US”.[5]

    Rather than interpreting the launch as a cry for attention directed at the international community, it seems reasonable that domestic factors were most instrumental this time around. Obviously the launch coincided almost on the day with the one year commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17 2011, but 2012 was also the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and North Korea had announced many years in advance that 2012 would mark the watershed moment when North Korea transforms itself into a “strong and prosperous nation”. The international situation notwithstanding, North Korea would probably have conducted some kind of symbolic act in 2012 to showcase its technological prowess in the new “strong and prosperous” era regardless of outside factors. Its spectacular launch failure in April created, if nothing else, a sense of urgency for achieving something grandiose before the end of the watershed year of 2012.

Ulv Hanssen
Fellow, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation,
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)

[1] http://www.space.com/18186-south-korea-satellite-launch-friday.html

[2] http://www.voanews.com/content/japan-launches-south-korean-satellite-into-orbit/667311.html

[3]See for example the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s homepages, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/n_korea/missile_12_2/index.html

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/13/world/missile-is-tested-by-north-koreans.html


What is happening in Korea? by Gabriel Jonsson

During the past week, South Korea held parliamentary elections whereas North Korea made a failed missile test and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founder, eternal President Kim Il Sung (1912-1994).

In the April 11 elections, the ruling Saenuri party won 152 of 300 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The main opposition party, the Democratic United Party, received 127 seats. Although it is difficult to predict the impact on the presidential elections to be held in December, the chances of Park Kun-hye, the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee (1963-1979), to become the ruling party’s candidate could have improved. Politics will increasingly focus on the elections, which means that it is unlikely that anything dramatic will happen in domestic politics or in inter-Korean relations throughout the year.

Since North Korea announced on March 16 that it will make a missile test between April 12-16 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, there has been much concern regarding the announcement world-wide. The test was made on April 13 but it was a big failure: the rocket crushed into the sea just one minute after it was launched. Considering that the launch not only concurred with the commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday but also was intended to strengthen the new leader Kim Jong-Un’s position, the crash was very embarrasing for the leadership. The North Korean authorities have admitted the failure and initiated investigations to find out the causes. It cannot be excluded that the failure will have an impact on power politics within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).

At the military parade held in the capital Pyongyang on April 15, the leadership showed up in front of tens of thousands of citizens in order to show unity. The appointment of Kim Jong-Un as first secretary of KWP and chairman of the Central Military Commission on April 11 followed by the appointment as first chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission on April 13 clearly shows that the North Korean leadership wants to maintain status quo. This wish also became clear when Kim Jong-Un declared that the ”military-first” policy pursued by his father Kim Jong Il (1942-2011) will be enhanced.

Since the 1950s, North Korea has always emphasized the juche idea of self-reliance in politics, economics and defense, but the missile test is an indication that this policy has contributed to make the country backwards in terms of military technology. The admission of the failure shows that there is awareness of the backwardness within the party, but whether the failure will cause fissures or not is an open question. Considering that there since the struggle for power within the party ended in the late 1950s have been no known signs of fissures within the party, it is hard to expect that such a situation will develop now.

On the other hand, one difference now is that the legitimacy of power for a third generation Kim is weaker than for his predecessors. In fact, Kim Jong-Un’s only source of legitimacy is being son of Kim Jong Il, but how long will that impact last? What will happen if he cannot bring the country out of its economic difficulties that to a large extent are caused by the huge military expenditures? We do not know yet by sure how firm grip he has on power, but even if Korean politics is characterized by one-man rule the leader must have trusted advisers around him. Could the failed test cause distrust among his closest people?

North Korea is in contrast to what was the case in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe  extremely isolated from the outside world which makes it virtually impossible to change the system from outside. Domestic pressure for a change is at the present out of the question but should fissures arise within the leadership, along with disunity within the powerful military, an unpredictable situation could develop in the country.

Gabriel Jonsson

Associate Professor Korean Studies, Stockholm University

2008: Ups and downs in Korea

 by Geir Helgesen, Senior Researcher, NIAS

Last year in Korea was, as was previous years, filled with ups and downs, hopes and doubts, surprises and shocks, mystical occurrences and wild speculations, political shrewdness and political stupidity, conflict and thaw, tragedies and hope, fear and forgiving. All in all probably not so different from previous years, so what can be said about the recent past and the possible future on the Korean peninsula?

Korea is still a divided country, despite periods with thaw and positive developments, the relations between the two halves of the peninsula can at best be characterized as being marked by skepticism, usually it is hostile and often the situation seems to be on the brink of war. Not from any perspective an acceptable situation considering that the peninsula is highly militarized, including the presence of US bases and troops. This because the war in 1950-53 never formally ended: a ceasefire and not a peace agreement is the basis upon which the two opposing systems are co-existing. Although the cold war ended around 1990, on the Korean peninsula the balance is still sought upheld between the cold and the cruel war.

How can it be that this crazy situation prevails despite numerous attempts to have it solved? There are internal reasons: for instance the fact that for the majority of people North and South of the demarcation line, this abnormal situation is perceived as normal, as they have never experienced anything else. They know how to relate to “the other” as an enemy, this has been internalized through upbringing, education and political schooling. They do not know otherwise. This “abnormal normality”, however, can hardly be politically justified, as it implies an enormous waste of human resources; is a constant economic drain that creates inhuman conditions in parts of the peninsula; and, because it poses a real threat for the prevailing peace in Korea as well as in the whole region. And yet, to some extent the hostility between the two systems is also a factor that legitimizes their existence: the political authority on each side claims to be guaranteeing the security of its people confronted with the evil other. It is well known that an external enemy may function as the glue that bind people together in an otherwise disillusioned or fragmented population. Externally there are several reasons why some players, even main ones, may hesitate to invest their total energy in seeking a sustainable solution. In Japan North Korea plays an important role as the ideal threat immediately outside its borders, and this has skillfully been utilized by conservative and nationalistic forces in that country. For people devoted to high-tech weaponry development in the USA it has also been convenient to point at the North Korean military might as a main reason for a continued improvement of different anti-ballistic systems. Not that North Korea was innocent in creating these relations, the point is that what North Korea said and did, and what external forces hostile to North Koreas positive development needed, corresponded almost too well.

Was there then anything that happened in 2008 that may be signaling the direction of future developments on the peninsula? Despite speculations about political instability in the North we learned that their leader is in firm control, even when he becomes invisible to the world resulting in all kind of media-speculations. Thus the new US strategy in the last years of the Bush era: to accept reality as it is and stop dreaming about regime-change, was justified. This was too little and too late, however, to create an environment conducive to a serious and productive dialogue between the two traditional enemies, the DPRK and the USA.

Looking for big changes one have to turn to South Korea, where the two previous presidents Kim Dae-jung and Rho Moo-hyun over a period of ten years had created a different atmosphere between the two halves of the divided country, establishing a new platform for dialogue and cooperation. The new approach labeled “Sunshine” policy and later “Engagement” policy, realizing that hostility between South and North would continue endlessly unless a radical change was actively promoted, convinced Kim Dae-jung that sticks would never scare North Korea into a mood of change. To him the logical alternative was to use carrots, and as South Korea was characterized by abundance and North by scarcity, the Sunshine policy meant a transfer of means from South to North.   Despite a decade of improved relations this era was halted when South Korean voters late last year elected the conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who pledged a tougher stand towards the North. Arguing that the engagement policy was too expensive for South Korea, and that North Korea failed to reciprocate as expected, President Lee reintroduced the stick, with the immediate consequence that North Korea retreated to the previous cold-war mode of relations. This, however, may be a short interlude in the bumpy relations between the two Koreas. One reason supporting this expectation is that President Lee after all, as a former successful businessman, will focus on results rather than on ideology, and until now his North Korea policy has proved counterproductive. Another reason is that a new president is moving into the White House in Washington, a president who have emphasized dialogue instead of power policy in foreign relations, who have stated that one needs to talk to ones enemies, not only allies and friends, and who may be able to put eight years of failed US policy towards North Korea aside and connect back to the last period of the Clinton/Albright era where a breakthrough between the USA and North Korea was closer than ever before.

Is North Korea ready for this? Reading official statements from Pyongyang in response to what they see as hostile attacks from Japan, South Korea and the USA, one would doubt it. But these statements are responses to repeated criticism from the above mentioned countries, and North Korea does not restrict itself when it comes to verbal fights, has never done. Looking at what is going on in North Korea, however, how reality is changing in response to changed conditions and in anticipation of a changing policy, with corresponding new laws and regulations, one might be more confident that North Korea is ready. North Korea, its people and its political authorities, are moving. Some move reluctantly, everybody does it cautiously, but change has come to North Korea as status quo would mean stagnation and economic suicide. The outside world has an impact on developments in North Korea, and if North Korean authorities perceive the outside world as friendly and safe they will prefer and promote change. That was Kim Dae-jung’s deep insight and nothing has proved it wrong.

Geir Helgesen

Reform without reform, or how to add another stone to the bridge of understanding – still under construction – between East and

If there is one country in the world that resists understanding despite globalization, world wide webs and information overload, it must be North Korea. Confined in self-imposed seclusion added by internationally imposed isolation, the Northern half of the Korean peninsula proceeds in the footsteps of ancient regimes known to the West as Hermit Kingdoms.

This notwithstanding, North Korea is a part of this world, when test-firing missiles or nuclear devices very much so, when their hermit leader fails to appear where he is expected to, as recently to the 60th  anniversary of his country, his disappearance catches headlines in main media outlets all over the world. Media coverage, however, does not often elevate the level of knowledge for the readers or viewers. Mostly what is conveyed is hearsay, fabricated information by institutions with vested interests, or ill communicated and worse understood statements from official North Korean channels.

North Korea is in a difficult process of change. It is difficult because the country’s economy is in ruins, because it has lost most of its former friends but kept most of its enemies, and it is difficult because the system has intensely prepared the population to expect no change. Change came nevertheless from outside: natural disasters anticipating consequences of climate change, the collapse of state communism, and from inside: the death of the founder of the state and its eternal great leader. A virtual collapse in a hostile world, that turned less hostile, was the beginning of change. Not that change was welcomed, but it became a matter of necessity.

Solid information about this country is in short supply why research is needed, albeit difficult to conduct. At NIAS there are at present three ongoing projects related to North Korea under the theme culture and institutions in transition:

  • We participate in a teaching program on how to understand North Korean politics and political culture, specially designed for government officials in a major country with vested interests in Korean affairs.
  • We are developing a research project focusing on ways of opening a dialogue with North Korea on the humanitarian situation in the country. For years concerns about human rights have been misused as a tool to promote regime change in North Korea. This is why it is important to find another path leading towards the possibility of a much needed dialogue.
  • Beside teaching and research, but closely connected to both, NIAS are also engaged in a more practical project presenting Nordic state-of-the-art within the field of renewable energy to North Korea. Late autumn this year a delegation from North Korea will come to Copenhagen to learn about power generated from wind, water and the sun. A workshop focusing on sustainable energy will present relevant solutions to the North Koreans and the delegation will also visit Nordic facilities and institutions while being in this part of the world.

Geir Helgesen

South Korea, 25.02.08: a new president is sworn in

A personal comment by Geir Helgesen, Senior Researcher, NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

A change of leader in South Korea: does it matter much? Is it not, after all, the institutions and rules that characterize democratic governance while the president is more of a figurehead? Well, yes and no. South Korea is a democracy, as is the USA, but in both countries the president plays a decisive role, in Korea even more so than in the USA.

After two terms (and a whole decade) with centre-left leaders in the Blue House, the incoming leader is characterized as center-right. His party is called the Grand National Party (GNP), but whether it remains Grand will be seen after the National Assembly elections in April. National it is, both because the party is represented throughout the country (the South) and because the nation is an important symbol in a divided country. And of course it is a political Party, though it might not compare well with more ideologically based political organizations (what we regard as ‘real’ political parties) in this part of the world. When it has been decided who is going to run as a party’s candidate for president, that party becomes an electioneering machine; the pursuit of power overrides any ideological concerns that underpin the party’s identity. With such a pragmatic orientation, it is questionable if claims that the new president is center-right rather than center-left have any meaning.

The centre is obviously where everyone wants to be these days, and in a Confucian political culture this is more so as the centre represents the golden mean. But actually ‘left’ and ‘right’ have much the same meaning in Korea as they do in Europe. People of the left are inclined to put people first, focusing on welfare and solidarity, while those of the right prioritize the economy first, second and …That said, it is not necessarily the goal of a conservative president to ignore people and welfare. He will obviously argue that only with a vibrant economy will there be resources available to build up all the institutions that are needed to create a good society.

Korea is a divided country, and the Cold War period is barely over in this part of East Asia. For years, the 38th Parallel (the “demarcation” line between the two halves of Korea) was in effect a total barrier against any normal relations between neighbours. With Kim Dae-jung (the first centre-left president ever in South Korea) and his Sunshine Policy, some cracks appeared in the wall. During the past decade, these cracks have resulted in improved and extensive communication, collaborative projects between the two Koreas and a slow but quite steady North Korean movement towards reforms. Even so, these positive developments have not been easy, nor have they been without their interruptions and setbacks. The North Korean military-first policy, with its testing of nuclear devices and long-distance missiles, brought dramatic setbacks that upset the neighbouring countries as well as the world community. But the reason for the North Koreans to flex their military muscles was not South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, however; it was a threatening US foreign policy that considered taking military action against the North.

What will happen now, with a conservative president in Seoul and with the South naturally having closer ties with the USA and Japan? Are we approaching a new paradigm of conflict with China and Russia on the North’s side and USA and Japan supporting the South? Much depends on the new administration in Washington. Currently, even under George W. Bush there is détente between Washington and Pyongyang, not least thanks to Christopher R. Hill, who is the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the head negotiator for the US at the six-party talks. Although hardliners in Washington criticize the outcome of these talks, and in particular argue that North Korea has failed to fulfill their part of the deal, more sober observers know that the situation is more complex and that there are shortcomings on both sides. The question remain, will a conservative president in South Korea bring the Cold War back to the peninsula?

My guess is no. Mr. Lee may be conservative (or, at least, he ran for the presidency under the banner of the conservative party). But he is also a businessman, he is a Korean who experienced hardship during his youth, and he was (like all bright students) a progressive activist during his formative years. Let us take each of these experiences in turn, starting with the last mentioned. As a former student activist he is familiar with radicalism and radical nationalism; it is thus possible for him to understand the North Korean position. Having lived through difficult times in the post-war period, he may easily relate to the present living conditions of most people in North Korea. And as a business man, with few strong ideological bindings, he may first and foremost see the relations between South and North in terms of business opportunities. And this is exactly what he has announced.

This said, does it mean that there are no reason left to fear the immediate future in relations between South and North? Well, that may be a too optimistic conclusion. President Lee of South Korea has said that he wants a more reciprocal relationship, and also a more conditional one. Economic cooperation will continue (and it may even be upgraded) on the condition that the North Korean denuclearization continues. Another new aspect is that the new president will take up humanitarian issues, which means that the human rights situation in North Korea will be raised in future talks. This may be a non-starter, or it may be the beginning of a more real and honest relationship between South and North. That depends very much on how this issue is brought up. Will the South acknowledge their own highly problematic human rights record in the past? Will they have some understanding for the North Korean perspective that there is a direct link between the number of inmates in their camps and the amount of pressure – military and other kinds – that North Korea has felt as an isolated entity in a hostile world? Will President Lee (as did President Kim Dae-jung earlier) try to give the North Korean leader good reasons to embark on a reform policy. As a shrewd business man, I guess he could do that. I hope that he does.

Geir Helgesen

Korea Now by Senior Researcher Geir Helgesen, NIAS

Now ten years of active engagement between South and North Korea can be evaluated. Was it worth it? Is the relationship improving? Will North Korea dismantle its nuclear facilities and even give up any nuclear weapons it might possibly have in stock? Will the deals agreed upon by the outgoing South Korean administration and the North hold, or will the new, apparently more conservative, incoming president cancel the deals and take a fresh look at the situation? (This happened when Bush took over after Clinton; years of slowly built and fragile goodwill between North Korea and the US were lost.) As always there are many more questions than solid answers, and as always observers are ready to engage in what we like to call “educated guesswork”.

So here you have my speculations:

  • North Korea has not fulfilled the deal which was to disable its nuclear facilities and declare all of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. This may well be due to technical difficulties, it is even more likely that it is due to differences of opinion between civil and military leaders, and most likely it is due to the fact that North Korea has been asked to give up its main card, and it does that only with great caution. The agreement is set up as a balanced process whereby the parties involved act in turn. There is a very delicate balance involved in this, and a lot of interpretation concerning how others move or fail to move. At the moment North Korea feels it have gone a long way, and expects the others to speed up their moves. In the end, which will be sooner rather than later, North Korea will deliver.
  • The next administration in Seoul, headed by Lee Myung-bak, a former top executive of Hyundai and mayor of Seoul, is expected to evaluate the projects that the former administration agreed upon with the North Koreans. This he clearly expressed during his election campaign, and he must be expected to act accordingly. However, it would be a mistake to equate Lee and Bush. A well informed South Korean businessman-cum-politician can hardly be expected to destroy the groundwork for improved relations with North Korea, and thus miss out on new business opportunities, undermine the basis of peaceful relations and risk destroying the positive relations built up during the last two administrations. A more realistic expectation will be that Lee Myung-bak, with his business background and practical political experience as mayor of the capital, will engage with North Korea in an even larger scale, and with a team of insightful advisors on North Korean affairs he will be able to maneuver the relations towards further integration.
  • A word of caution. The present situation on the Korean peninsula is delicate and as always influenced by positions taken by neighboring countries and the USA. The key ward is ‘balance’. Whatever China decides to do in relations with North Korea, it has to be cleared with the South and the USA. Japan has had its own agenda for a while, and thus been rather isolated in the six-party talks. A more proactive Japanese policy towards the North must be balanced with South Korea first and foremost, and also with USA and China. Russia is to some extent an outsider, but regarding energy (North Koreas number one problem) it may soon come to play a greater role to the development on the peninsula. And last but absolutely not least: the outcome of the presidential election in the USA may make every other action towards North Korea ineffective if the next president decides to go back to square one and look at North Korea through axis-of-evil lenses. But that, we guess, will not happen.
  • No matter the costs, the slow pace, the backlashes and disappointments, the Sunshine policy created by President Kim Dae-jung and now practiced for a decade has been worth it. The Korean peninsula no longer poses one of the most fragile security situations on earth, and the quality of life is thus improved both north and south of the demarcation line. In the South, a more relaxed and gentle political culture may develop. (Currently it is discussed whether to invite an official from the North to the inauguration ceremony. This would be a strong symbolic signal in that direction.) In the North, a continued and expanding open- door policy should secure better basic living conditions, sufficient food, heating, light, health provisions, education, work and transportation. Thereafter, having reached a level of normal living conditions, the North Korean society will have to meet the challenges of globalization, and also, hopefully in close cooperation with its neighbors, find its way to respond creatively to this.

Geir Helgesen, Ph.D.

Cultural sociologist


Read the report North Korea 2007 : assisting development and change / Geir Helgesen and Nis Høyrup Christensen