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Believe It or Not, North Korea is Aiming for Space

New America Media, News Analysis, Peter Schurmann Posted: Mar 16, 2009

Editor's Note: North Korea's erratic and ofttimes bellicose regime announced in February that it would launch into space a satellite for peaceful uses. But the long-range missile involved could as easily be used for military purposes, and tension around the impending launch is palpable in the region. How should the United States respond to the saber-rattling this time? NAM contributor Peter Schurmann reports.

SEOUL, South Korea -- Isolated, impoverished and universally hated North Korea is going ahead with some sort of space launch. It cant keep its cities lit or its roads full. It cant even feed its people. But it can keep the entire region on alert as it ratchets up the kind of tension that has proven to be a major lifeline for the regime, leaving the rest of us to wonder if and when things will boil over.

Tension has mounted steadily in recent weeks after reports last month that Pyongyang is planning to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking parts of the U.S. West Coast. The North soon responded by admitting that preparations were indeed underway, but for a peaceful satellite launch. That was followed by a warning about the safety of South Korean passenger jets flying through the Norths airspace. Flights into Seoul had been diverted due to the threat.

Last Wednesday, U.N. agencies said theyd been notified by Pyongyang that the launch would occur between April 4-8. Thats when I began thinking about keeping a packed suitcase in the trunk. Just in case.

In order to protect the supreme interests of the country and the nation from the war maniacs' reckless moves for aggression against the DPRK, read a statement carried by the Norths official Korean Central News Agency, we will retaliate any act of intercepting our satellite for peaceful purposes with prompt counter strikes by the most powerful military means. DPRK is the acronym for the Norths official name, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war.

Initial reports dismissed North Koreas claim that it was pursuing a peaceful space program, harking back to 2006 when Pyongyang issued a similar statement just before firing off a long-range Taepodong II missile. That rocket plopped into the sea minutes after take off, but the launch was soon followed by a nuclear test that led to U.N. Resolution 1718, banning the North from future missile tests, and sanctions that were nonetheless rendered ineffectual by Chinas continued material support of the North.

Some analysts actually questioned whether the missile launch was in fact intended to fail, as a successful launch would have been too provocative and harmful to the Norths real intent. A failed launch, on the other hand, would cause just enough tension between players in the region to allow the North more room to maneuver. In the game of smoke-and-mirrors, North Korea is a pro.

Later, editorials emerged asking what if? What if the North is preparing for a satellite this time and not a missile launch? Would regional powers like Japan or the United States still be justified in shooting it down? For countries like China, Russia and Iran, all looking to pursue their own space ambitions, thats a serious question. And even assuming that it is a satellite, the launch technology involved is essentially the same as a ballistic missile, so either way the North benefits.

For their part, Seoul and Washington insist that any launch would violate U.N. sanctions. Philip Zelikow, former head of the 9/11 commission, took it a step further in a February op-ed for Foreign Policy when he called for a strike on the rocket if the North attempts to send it up. Thats all well and good, but destroying the rocket would wipe out any chance of discerning whether it is in fact carrying a satellite or missile, allowing the North to insist on the former. And besides Zelikow doesnt live in Seoul.

While threats out of the North are nothing new, particularly these days with Seouls conservative Lee Myung-bak government on less-than-friendly terms with Pyongyang, the fact is that any confrontation has potentially catastrophic ramifications. North Korea is a cornered raccoon with a million claws bared and not a hell of a lot to lose. A friend suggested that the North had taken heart from events in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to a more positive assessment of its ability to handle U.S. forces.

A more likely scenario is that Pyongyang is betting that it can win concessions without sparking a full-blown conflict that would see their demise. Its a risky bet, but one thats worked for decades.

One South Korean analyst said recently that North Korea views the loss of lives in a military skirmish as beneficial as it stokes domestic support for the regime while keeping neighbor countries on the edge of their seats. A successful launch will have the same effect, strengthening internal cohesion while creating tension between regional players who are sure to clash over how to react. Japan is likely to push for an aggressive response, while China and Russia will opt for a less hostile approach, placing the United States--neck deep in a tanking economy and two wars squarely in the middle.

A British colleague quipped the other day as he stepped out for lunch that he was off to see about getting a passport for his Korean wife: You never know when North Korea is gonna go ballistic. I couldnt tell if he was joking or not, and thats the problem with Seouls intractable neighbor to the North.

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