Today, three months after the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea announced that it planned to launch a satellite in mid-April, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Song, the founder of the North Korean state. Pyongyang will claim that it has every right under international law to launch a satellite, but that assertion conveniently ignores both that it is barred by UN Security Council resolutions from conducting launches using ballistic missile technology and and that it pledged on February 29th to institute a moratorium on long-range missile tests.
North Korea no doubt believes that it needs to perfect its ballistic missile technology (just as it surely wishes to perfect its nuclear devices). Yet today’s announcement raises a number of questions. When U.S. negotiators were crafting what became Pyongyang’s February 29th statement, did they seek or receive any assurance that the missile-test moratorium included satellite launches? Was China, which so far has “taken note” of the North Korean announcement and called on “all parties” to act constructively, totally unaware of the North Korean plan? If so, that doesn’t speak well of its special relationship with Pyongyang. If it did, then it says volumes about its level of influence and willingness to use it.
The most important question is why Pyongyang chose to announce a missile test at this time, so soon after its most recent smile diplomacy resulted in a limited yet non-trivial understanding with the United States. This may simply reflect a huge miscalculation. It certainly suggests that Pyongyang places greater emphasis on promoting the Kim Family Cult than on its external relations. Yet because the U.S.-North Korean understanding foreshadowed the possibility of a return to multilateral talks on denuclearizing North Korea, today’s announcement may suggest, once again, that Pyongyang is using provocations to avoid serious negotiations while a political transition is still underway.