North Korea's Failed Fireworks
In early February, Iran launched its third successful commercial satellite in three years. The Barack Obama administration, the United Nations, and the news media barely acknowledged the accomplishment. North Korea, on the other hand, has created a furor each of the three times its satellites failed to reach orbit.
Its latest effort, on Apr. 13, broke up within two minutes of launch. Pyongyang acknowledged the failure and went on with its celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung.
The Obama administration immediately condemned the North Korean launch. It followed through on its threat to suspend its participation in the Feb. 29 agreement that would have sent 240,000 metric tonnes of food assistance to North Korea.
"We want to make clear to them…that each step that they take in terms of provocations will only lead to a deeper isolation, increase consequences," stated Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. "And frankly, that's not just a message they're hearing from us, they're hearing it from the Chinese and the Russians as well."
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) released a "presidential statement" on Apr. 16 accusing North Korea of violating a 2009 sanctions resolution that barred the country from missile tests, including satellite launches. The UNSC's sanctions committee will look into freezing the assets of additional North Korean entities and preventing additional "proliferation-sensitive technology" from entering or exiting the country.
Iran and North Korea are both already subject to considerable sanctions, and the United States routinely expresses concerns over the missile programmes of both countries. That hasn't prevented either country from moving forward with its space programme.
Iran and North Korea view satellites as a sign of technological achievement and, given that satellites are a multi-billion-dollar industry, potential economic gain. North Korea is additionally motivated to get a satellite in orbit because of the two-time failure of South Korea to launch one of its own.
So attractive is the prospect of having a satellite in orbit – and the requisite rocket capability – that North Korea gave up the promised U.S. food aid just on the eve of its "barley hump", when the winter stores are depleted and the new barley crop has not yet come in.
Part of the reason why Iran's satellite launches don't attract nearly the same attention as North Korea's lies in the origins of North Korea's space programme, which began with an unannounced 1998 launch that particularly shocked Japan.
"North Korea's apparent readiness to launch multi-stage rockets back then with little warning came as a surprise, one that it seems we've never quite gotten over," an arms control expert told IPS on a non- attribution basis. "Now add to that their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) withdrawal and nuclear tests, and these launches look very threatening, indeed.
"Iran, by contrast, seems to avoid overflying other countries when conducting space launches. Even though the UNSC says they shouldn't be doing that sort of thing, either, it never gets the same sort of reaction. They're still in the NPT, of course."
Other factors include the lack of allied support for North Korea. Iran, with its considerable energy exports, continues to trade with China, Russia, India and Turkey, and can count on those countries for a measure of diplomatic support. North Korea, by contrast, has little to offer, and even its putative allies Russia and China have joined in the condemnation of its satellite launch.
In the aftermath of the failed launch, Pyongyang has indicated that it will pursue the construction of a larger rocket. The South Korean government, meanwhile, anticipates a third nuclear test from North Korea.
But the international community has few levers with which to influence North Korean behaviour. The country is already heavily sanctioned, and the U.N. will be hard pressed to find ways to tighten the screws.
"The United States is best advised to let the launch's failure be its own 'punishment,'" argues John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Sanctions have long passed the point of utility. Likewise 'tough' language from the UNSC only plays into the hands of hardliners in Pyongyang.
"More constructively, the diplomatic focal point - and Beijing might want to take the lead here - should be continuing with the plan to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to monitor the freeze at Yongbyon. Were that to proceed, President Obama would have justification for going through with the U.S. side of the Leap Day deal after all. The alternative is probably an intensified version of the worst of 2009-10."
In an Apr. 13 New York Times op-ed, Sung-Yoon Lee, a scholar of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, takes the opposite tack. "Spectacular failure though it was, North Korea's latest rocket launching calls for punitive measures from America and its allies," he writes. "Bad engineering is no reason for complacency; the benchmark for American policy must be North Korea's intent."
For the better part of its term, the Obama administration maintained a policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea. During an election year, with many other issues competing for the administration's attention, neither a proactive nor a severely punitive approach is likely.
"I see relative continuity among the United States, Japan, and South Korea, with the exception being that there is little likelihood of serious or high-level dialogue through the end of the year," observes Scott Snyder, the director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"North Korea's advantage currently comes from our respective preoccupations with domestic politics. Otherwise, I wonder whether there might have been the prospect of a more robust response."