Going Once! Going Twice! Going Thrice! Gone!
But don’t worry. President Obama is on the ball.
The Missile launch
After previous failures, it had been anticipated that North Korea would attempt, between April 12th and 16th, to launch a long range missile that it claimed would lift only a harmless small observation satellite into orbit. North Korea favored a launch window between between 7 a.m. and noon (2200-0300 GMT). I had expected a launch as early as the morning of April 12th but cloudy weather apparently intervened.
Here is a pre-launch interview with James Oberg, NBC “space consultant” and NASA Mission Control veteran about things at the North Korean Sohae Satellite Launch Center. Among other problems, he noted that
The problem is the North Koreans didn’t just let us in [to the same room as the satellite], they let us get much too close. I could’ve walked three steps and poked it with my finger. But I didn’t want to put grease and smudges on the outside because it could lead the device to overheat in space or it could change a lot of things about the electro-static environment. So you need to protect the satellite from contamination – from touching, from people breathing on it, sneezing on it. And we were all coming in covered in dust after a long road trip. They didn’t protect the satellite from any of that.
The missile launch
North Korea launched its Unha-3 three stage long range missile on Friday (the 13th) at 7:39 a.m. Korean time (Thursday evening, New York time). The weather was then relatively clear, with some mist. According to several early reports, the missile “appears to have broken apart shortly afterward, U.S. officials said.” “The 90-ton rocket launched with a larger than anticipated flare” and seems to have crashed into the sea very shortly thereafter. According to this report, “the UN Security Council will meet in emergency session on Friday to discuss the situation in North Korea after the launch, a UN diplomat said Thursday.” The White House “said it would issue a statement.” As of this writing, North Korea has had no comment and neither has the White House although “U.S. officials said the rocket broke apart shortly after launch.” South Korea’s foreign minister said that the “North Korean long-range rocket launch has been confirmed a ‘failure’.” According to this report, “Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the rocket remained in the air for slightly more than a minute, then fell into the ocean”
The Unha-3, said to have a longer range than did its predecessors, “is believed to have a design range of more than 6,700 km (4,160 miles), and can carry a payload of up to 1,000 kg.” (Emphasis added.) I have not been able to learn whether the claimed 6,770 km range is at full or reduced payload. According to this report, “Ryu Kum Chol, deputy director of the space development department of the Korean Committee for Space Technology,” stated on April 10th that “Our satellite weighs 100 kilograms. For a weapon, a 100-kilogram payload wouldn’t be very effective.” That’s rather a straw man argument, since it had not generally been thought that the missile carried a weapon but only that the launch was intended to test whether current North Korean technology might be up to that task and to suggest possible improvements. With a range of 6,700 km, such a missile launched from North Korea could hit Anchorage (see this article).
Apparently the missile self destructed before its trajectory took it very far. Various pieces splashed down in the ocean.A better Google Earth depiction of the track claimed by North Korea to be intended is available here. However, substantial questions had been raised about the legitimacy of North Korean claims as to the trajectory and in any event accurate long range missile guidance has not been a strong point for North Korea.
The Japanese reaction to the impending missile launch was rather interesting.
Japan has been one of the most active players in the North Korean “satellite” crisis. As a country well within the range of Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles, Tokyo has good reason to be concerned, but the implications of its assertiveness in the past month are interesting in their own right.
When South Korea said on March 26 that it would intercept Pyongyang’s Unha-3 rocket if the satellite’s trajectory appears errant, the warning came three days after Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka’s announcement that Tokyo was readying Aegis-class warships and PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles in preparation for North Korea’s rocket launch. That was quite a move for a country that constitutionally renounces the use of force as means of settling international disputes.
. . . .
As long as Washington could provide security for the Japanese archipelago, Tokyo had no reason to seek rearmament. Japanese leaders did attempt to militarize in order to adapt to the needs of the US and maintain close ties. The result was Japan’s shift in the 1990s from a home island defense core to a regional security focus.
. . . .
The status of the United States has rapidly shifted from that of an indomitable superpower to international sick man. Defense obligations to South Korea provide one of many examples where Tokyo can see immediate shortfalls in America’s capabilities. Under current contingencies against a North Korean invasion, the US promises to dispatch a force to the Korean Peninsula that would be equivalent to the entire size of the US army after budget cuts.  These are impossible promises, and despite assurances from Washington the bottom line is that the United States does not have the economic stamina to support operations in East Asia. (Emphasis added)
While an unfortunate view for Japan to hold, it seems realistic.
The launch is likely to be seen as a failure except as portrayed in North Korean propaganda. North Korea’s earlier long range missile launch attempts were failures, although claimed in the North Korean media as great successes. North Korea may well cite today’s launch as an even greater success because it was in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the revered Great Leader and Eternal President. Moreover, according to this article, the director of North Korea’s mission control center near Pyongyang stated,
The launch of the satellite this time will be successful because Comrade Kim Jong-Un is guiding us through the launch step by step, and gives us personal guidance.”
In such auspicious circumstances, it could not easily be claimed as less than wildly successful. The advanced
ideological technical missile guidance provided by Kim Jong-un was doubtless quite chastening effective in moving launch preparations along the technologically ideologically desirable path. The now probably former director of Mission Control and his esteemed colleagues are likely en route to one of the famed North Korean gulags resorts where they will enjoy their (few) remaining days in healthful agricultural pursuits.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia that had previously escaped my notice:
April 15, 1912 was not only the day the Titanic sank. In a small village near Pyongyang, a boy with the name Kim Song Ju [his name later became Kim Il-sung] was born.
Pentagon officials are closely watching four North Korean submarines that recently went to sea, prompting South Korean commanders to give their navy a green light to retaliate if fired upon.
Just days ahead of a controversial long-range rocket test and a major political conference in Pyongyang, North Korea reportedly quietly sent four of its diesel-electric submarines on deployment this week.
The North’s large Sang-O-class and “midget” Yono-class submarines are not as stealthy as more-advanced American vessels, but they are still capable of eluding many modern sonar systems.
Retaliation by North Korea would likely have raised the temperatures in the diplomatic and military pots to well above the boiling point; as often happens, the two pots’ denizens may at least initially have directed much of their aggravation, aggression and energy against each other.
Another nuclear weapons test may be on the way.
According to Secretary Clinton, the impending missile launch pointed
to “additional provocations” from North Korea after the launch, an apparent reference to a nuclear test.
“This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to their system,” she told cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
“And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.”
There have been many media reports of late that North Korea has been preparing for its third underground nuclear weapons test and now appears to be nearly ready, with “piles of dirt near the newly excavated tunnel’s entrance.” Shortly before other tests, dirt was used to plug the tunnels.
Ominously, both of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, have come on the heels of rocket launches which were condemned by the international community.
This article states that “the North is believed to have stockpiled enough fissile material to manufacture up to 10 nuclear bombs.”
It had generally been thought that North Korea lacks the means of delivering a nuclear device via missile.
Experts say the Unha-3 rocket slated for liftoff between April 12 and 16 could also test long-range missile technology that might be used to strike the U.S. and other targets. Unha means galaxy in English.
North Korea has tested two atomic devices, but is not believed to have mastered the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.
Due to the claimed light payload and “unexpectedly” short flight of the April 13th missile, it remains unclear whether it could have delivered, or a cousin missile might be able later to deliver, a nuclear weapon to any part of the United States: weight matters.
While some analysts believe that this is beyond North Korea’s current technical capabilities, others point out that North Korea may have received assistance from Pakistan, which tested miniaturized and relatively sophisticated nuclear warhead designs for its missiles — weighing hundreds as opposed to thousands of kilograms — in 1998.30
Regardless of whether North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead sufficiently or can deliver a heavy nuclear warhead, there are plenty of other lethal but lighter things such as radioactive agents, biological agents, chemical agents and old fashioned explosive devices that could be delivered to cause lots of damage in populated areas.
North Korea is a strange place with even stranger leaders
North Korea is a black hole from which hardly any light escapes; what little does escape is reflected, refracted and filtered into unintelligibly. Attempts to predict what it may do and why are at best guessing games for those of us who are not intimate with that culture. We still try, however. I contended here that it is naive to believe, as many seem to, that twenty-eight year old Kim Jong-un functions as significantly more than a ceremonial figurehead under the close control of a regency drawn from longtime regime insiders including members of Kim Jong-il’s immediate family and military leaders. As noted here, compared to North Korea’s, Iran’s rulers are an open book. It was reported on April 7th that heads of the “regime’s nuclear and missile programmes” had ascended to Kim Jong-un’s “inner circle.” This may have suggested an elevation in status for their programs as well as for them personally. Failure of the missile launch suggests that the head of missile programs is or may soon be in trouble. Spectacular failure, even if publicly cast as success, is usually the path to oblivion or worse.
In this CNN video, New Mexico Governor Richardson offered his analysis — prior to the April 14th missile launch — of why North Korea would do such a thing. He argued, with little basis in my view, that Kim Jong-un is trying to establish his own position as the new great leader of North Korea. I don’t much credit his analysis because, among other reasons, as Governor Richardson acknowledges, Kim Jong-un’s position is primarily ceremonial as have been the new titles recently given to him. The regency seems more likely to be trying to solidify its own position, with Kim Jong-un as the principal governmental figurehead with no real power at all.
A quite young and grossly inexperienced man such as Kim Jong-un seems very unlikely to have been given the power to rule North Korea and the indications are that it has not happened.
How and why did a poverty stricken country like North Korea (although by no means poverty stricken for the Kim favorites in Pyongyang and elsewhere) get to this point? To “advance science and technology” as claimed? To garner prestige at home and in the rest of the world? While begging and sometimes getting, or being on the cusp of getting, humanitarian assistance for its malnourished and maltreated multitudes? The funds spent on the new missile cost lots of money: “Government officials in South Korea have calculated the North is spending $19 million on this launch.”
A brief account of uncertainties surrounding North Korea is provided here. The current missile and nuclear testing are part of a rather a long story beginning with North Korea’s first great leader, Kim Il-sung, who morphed into a man of incredible legend. As I noted here,
The one hundredth anniversary of his birth is scheduled to be celebrated widely in North Korea on April 15, 2012. It is to bring a great leap forward to prosperity and power; then, there will be plenty for all, even a daily bowl of soup with meat. His birth seems to have been somewhat unremarkable but his life and death took on mythical auras. He remains the “eternal President” and is also commonly called the Great Leader.
When Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, died in December of last year, the relatively modest religious symbolism that had accumulated during Kim Il-sung’s life expanded greatly. Kim Jong-il’s
official biography says he was “heaven sent,” born in a log cabin in Mount Paektu while his father was fighting the Japanese.
“Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu,” his biography reads.
Lore has it soldiers spread the news of his birth by inscribing the announcement on trees across the country — a practice that North Koreans continue today by carving the leaders’ messages into rocks and mountainsides.
. . . .
His obituary in state media called him the “illustrious commander born of heaven,” and on Wednesday, KCNA said a Manchurian crane spotted in the city of Hamhung circled a statue of Kim Il Sung for hours before dropping its head and taking off toward Pyongyang. The crane is a traditional Korean symbol of longevity.
“Even the sky seemed to writhe in grief,” KCNA said, reporting blinding blue flashes, thunder and heavy snow near the Demilitarized Zone. “He was, indeed, a great saint born of heaven.”
Father and son, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are depicted in this bit of statuary. The one hundredth birthday celebration of Kim Il-sung is a “really big” deal in North Korea and the regime has been preparing for it for years.
No food for North Korean peasants!
Only last Month, it was announced that
Key issues on deliveries of American food aid to North Korea have been resolved, though details remain to be settled after talks ended Thursday.
Envoy Robert King called the day-and-a-half of talks with North Korean officials “positive and productive.” He declined to disclose details before reporting back to Washington.
“We resolved the administrative issues we were concerned with,” King told reporters at Beijing’s main airport before boarding a flight for Washington. He later said: “We’re still working on the details.”
The talks follow a deal announced last week in which the U.S. offered 240,000 tons of food aid in return for North Korea freezing long-range missile and nuclear tests and for halting a uranium enrichment program that would be monitored by UN inspectors.
That agreement is the most substantive sign of warming U.S.-North Korean ties after three years of tensions during which Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device and engaged in armed provocations against South Korea. (Emphasis added)
A week earlier, North Korea had
announced an agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile tests, along with uranium enrichment programs, and allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors.
The United States had suspended shipments of food aid to North Korea in 2009 amid tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and concerns that the supplies were not reaching those most in need.
Secretary Clinton had expressed “cautious optimism” but noted that
the United States will be watching North Korea closely and judging the country’s leaders by their actions in the coming weeks and months.
On April 12th, Politico reported that
the White House is pushing back against the media for what it sees as oversaturated coverage of this week’s forthcoming North Korean missile test.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this is a propaganda exercise,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told me. “Reporters have to be careful not to get co-opted.”
The media should take to heart Mr. Vietor’s advice against being co-opted by propaganda, including that proffered by the White House which they seem happy to accept and report as accurate. Is President Obama jealous due to the modest coverage of his own spectacular national security and foreign policy “successes,” or is he worried that too much coverage of the missile launch and its repercussions may cause voters to consider him weak and ineffective?
What happened to change the North Korean stance from begging to threatening? Why didn’t it go back to begging? It sometimes attempts both simultaneously. North Korea is one of the most mercurial actors on the world stage and even her principal benefactor, China, seemed unable to convince North Korea to stop. Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi
reportedly said he would do his best to discourage North Korea from launching the Kwangmyongsong-3. A diplomatic source reported that Yang called for close communication between South Korea, China and the UN in the process of responding to the launch of the rocket.
According to this report, dated April 10th,
China apparently does not accept North Korea’s claim that it is launching a satellite for scientific purposes. When North Korea unveiled its uranium enrichment program to the U.S. at the end of 2010, the Chinese Foreign Ministry backed North Korea, saying it has the right to use civilian nuclear power, but there was no such support for what is widely believed to be a test run for a long-range missile under the guise of a satellite launch.
The fact that North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, who represents the North in six-party nuclear talks, is still in Beijing suggests that North Korea is concerned about China’s strong opposition. Ri was originally scheduled to return to North Korea from Beijing on Saturday [April 7th] after concluding visits to the U.S. and Russia.
Perhaps China’s lack of success in dissuading North Korea from the missile launch had something to do with her own domestic problems that may make the anticipated leadership succession from “Communist Party Chief Hu Jintao to the younger generation headed by anointed leader to be Xi Jinping” rather chaotic. Currently, some of those problems revolve about a recently deposed Politburo member whose wife is (incidentally?) being investigated for murder. China may even be on the edge of a coup d’etat.
China’s Communist Party is evidently in a state of serious disarray. At the end of March 2012, the standing committee of 9 denounced Bo Xilai, a prominent Maoist leader from Chongqing, as being guilty of three offenses: pursuing an incorrect political line, employing the wrong people, and corruption.These charges proved to be insufficient to destroy Bo Xilai’s reputation.
Rumors suggest that one member of the Politburo, internal security chief Zhou Yongkang – a fan of Bo Xilai – may already have led a failed coup against the standing committee, rolling tanks through the streets of Beijing. Surely Zhou Yongkang is now in the cross-hairs of the Supreme Leader, Hu Jintao.
In any event, China has tried to defuse the situation at home;
“The way they’re using the news media over the last 48 hours really projects a sense of deep insecurity,” said one analyst, said David Bandurski, at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
“When you have to drum home the point of unity this hard,” he added, “it conveys the opposite message.”
These problems and others — including China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea — may also be diverting China’s attention from her neighbor, North Korea.
The standoff in the South China Sea between the naval forces of the Philippines and China is in danger of escalating, as the U.S. continues to watch anxiously.
China has now sent a third ship to support its claim to the area known as Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
. . . .
On the surface this would seem to be a minor dispute between two countries but it is in fact part of a much wider problem that may lead to U.S. military involvement.
What will happen next? Will the United Nations, politely, ask North Korea pretty please to stop being nasty? Will North Korea blame South Korea or some other country and attack? Will it test its nuclear device? Will it be successful, whatever that may mean? Will the West do anything? China? At this point, even Hu probably does not know. How soon will North Korea be back with its begging bowl, before, during or after another strange adventure? Stay tuned. Things may happen rather quickly.
UPDATE: According to this article,
The U.S. military says the North Korean the first stage of the missile fell into the Yellow Seal, while the other two stages failed.
North American Aerospace Defense Command officials say the U.S. detected and tracked the launch of the North Korean missile at 6:39 p.m. EDT. NORAD says the missile went south over the Yellow Sea about 165 kilometers west of Seoul. Stages two and three failed and no debris fell on land.
And another UPDATE: According to this article,
WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Jay Carney released a statement late Thursday calling the failed North Korean rocket launch a “provocation” and a waste of the regime’s money when its people are in dire need of food:
“Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea’s pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security of our allies in the region.
“The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
And still another UPDATE:
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the day, North Korea “acknowledged in an announcement broadcast on state TV that a satellite launched hours earlier from the west coast failed to enter into orbit.” Is the current administration the most transparent in North Korean history?
There appears to have been no repeat of this statement by the director of North Korea’s mission control center near Pyongyang:
The launch of the satellite this time will be successful because Comrade Kim Jong-Un is guiding us through the launch step by step, and gives us personal guidance.”
Nor has there as yet been any announcement as to which
gulag luxury resort the heads of North Korean missile development and deployment will be sent to enjoy charming rustic activities. Nor has it been announced whether their heads will accompany them or travel separately.