Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea’s Upcoming Launch

Well, North Korea is all ready to launch the Unha-3, in all likelihood carrying the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite to a fiery demise that the regime in Pyongyang will vigorously deny.

We’ve posted a FAQ on North Korea’s Upcoming Space Launch at the MIIS website, but I wanted to round up some of the reporting and suggest something provocative about why North Korea might be doing this.


First, the wonkporn: North Korea allowed journalists to view, and photograph, the Unha-3 launch vehicle and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite.

We already expected the Unha-3 to look like the Unha-2 with a larger third stage based on the “splashdown” locations provided by North Korea to the International Maritime Organizations.  (NorthKoreaTech has provided invaluable coverage of information provided to the IMO, ITU and so forth.) The images, particularly those released by APBBC and MSNBC confirm that the first and second stages appear the same as in 2009, while the third stage is slightly longer.

There is a small debate at SatObs over North Korea’s claim that the satellite will be placed in a sun-synchronous orbit, although I tend to share Jonathan McDowell’s view that North Korea will be happy if the satellite works for just a few days.


After North Korea announced the satellite launch, Kim Gye Gwan sent a letter to Glyn Davies asking for a meeting to explain.  The Administration rejected the overture.

Chris Nelson has now published the full-text of Kim Gye-Gwan’s letter, noting “This is the translation…?…being circulated.”  Take that for what it is worth:

March 20, 2012

Dear Ambassador Davies,

I was very disappointed of the US counter position dated March 21st, 2012.

The DPRK had taken part in the last three round of the DPRK-US high level bilateral talks and moved very quickly for implementing the February 29 Agreement.

Early this month in Beijing, our side displayed the maximum magnanimity and archived an agreement in the working meeting on the DPRK-US nutrition assistance. We also suggested the IAEA to hold a technical meeting to discuss ways of moratorium on our uranium enrichment and invited its officials. Our relevant agency had already entered technical preparation works to stop the operation of centrifuges at the Nyong-byon uranium enrichment plant.

Nonetheless, the US side took counter measures in haste to suspend the implementation of the DPRK-US bilateral deal, blaming our peaceful satellite launch as a violation of the deal, which is regarded as an action without discretion and fairness.

The DPRK needs badly exploring and using the space science and technology for its economic construction and thus it can not be deprived of and abandoned. We have never hided or lied about it.  Since the first round of the DPRK-US high level bilateral talks, I had made very clear that the moratorium on long range missile launch did not include our peaceful satellite launch and that provided us with a fundamental base for our deal.

In order to show our sincerity and transparency that our launch does not aim at aggravating the situation and breaking the deal but at resolving our peaceful necessity on the occasion of the DPRK’s greatest national holiday, we invited satellite experts exceptionally from countries with advanced space exploration including the US to visit the launching station.

The US should not judge our peaceful satellite launch as a ballistic missile fire a view of confrontation and should send its experts at our invitation to the launching station and let them have an chance to see the launching and operation with their own eyes and make objective and fair assessment on our intention unless it has any hostile intend as affirmed in the DPRK-US deal.

We are concerned of the US decision to suspend the nutrition assistance process because it is a clear violation of a core element of the DPRK-US deal. We recall the US policy not to link humanitarian aids with politics and US side had mentioned that the nutrition assistance was the “irreversible step” in the previous talks.  The US should not take a very indiscrete and unfair measure of stopping the nutrition aids unless it hopes to break all items of the deal with our peaceful satellite launch.

It is our position that our satellite launching is totally separate matter from the DPRK-US agreement and DPRK is in a position to implement to the end.

Regarding this, I would be willing to meet you at the earliest dates in Beijing or other convenient place to explain our position personally and discuss ways to control the situation following the launch.

Your response on this suggestion would be highly appreciated.


Kim, Kye Gwan


I underline one passage, because it got me thinking.


The best thing written so far on this whole fiasco has been Georgy Toloraya’s essay for 38 North, in which he concludes the US and the DPRK “did not quite grasp each others’ real intentions or reach the right conclusions.”

That much seems obvious.  Let’s try to grasp at intentions for a moment.  Why did North Korea agree to this deal?

Many of us — myself included — have implicitly placed the nutritional assistance at the center of the discussion of North Korean motivations, as though North Korea’s strategic calculations might be altered by 240,000 tons of plumpy’nut and other sundries. Toloraya mocks that notion, which is pretty stupid when you think about it, asking”Was anybody so naive as to presume the North would cancel such a prestigious project by silently including its ‘cost’ into the ridiculously low price of 240,000 tons of food?”

That’s a good point.  If not the food, then what the hell was Kim Gye Gwan doing in Beijing?  If we look at Kim’s letter to Davies, an interesting alternative emerges: Kim describes the ability of North Korea to launch a satellite as “a fundamental base for our deal.”

What happens if we read Kim literally and put the rocket launch at the center for Pyongyang’s strategic calculations?

Last fall, it was fashionable to argue that Pyongyang would seek a period of strategic calm during the centenary celebrations for Kim Il Sung.  That seems wildly incorrect right now, but perhaps it wasn’t so far off the mark.

It is an interesting problem for Kim Il Sung’s progeny.  How does the regime in Pyongyang do something really big for his 100th birthday without triggering another regional crisis that will mar all the fun?  When your main technical achievements as a nation are missiles and nuclear weapons, your options aren’t that great.

What if the DPRK concluded that celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday with a space launch was the best chance to celebrate juche, while simultaneously making efforts to reduce the political costs associated with such an act.  In other words, what if the space launch wasn’t a bargaining chip, but Kim Gye Gwan’s primary strategic objective?

It is possible that Pyongyang engaged in this entire process in the first place largely to avoid the sort international reaction that, in retrospect, seems unavoidable.  That might explain why, having gotten thisclose, the North Koreans decided to call and see if Obama was bluffing.  What would they have to lose?

I can’t assert with any confidence that this is what happened, but nor do I find any basis on which to exclude the possibility.


One of the interesting little stories in all of this is how Track II observers heard — or think they heard — something different from the North Koreans.

Evans Revere, for example, has written an article in which he suggests that North Korean officials during Track II discussions heavily emphasized the satellite launch to him:

First, last week was not the first time that the DPRK spoke of its plans to launch a satellite. I first became aware of this possibility on December 15, 2011, during an exchange with a DPRK official. The official spoke at length about the DPRK’s “sovereign right” to conduct such launches and warned that any U.S. effort to interfere with or oppose this plan would make the DPRK even more determined to carry it out.

My North Korean interlocutor was well aware that a launch would violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions and would lead to serious consequences. This conversation convinced me that the DPRK was determined to carry out a launch in the near future.

The Obama administration had already heard similar statements from North Korean counterparts, and had already delivered a strong warning to the DPRK. The warning included specific statements that a launch would violate of the U.S.-DPRK understandings that eventually resulted in the Leap Day agreement.

Equally or even more important, my conversation took place three days before the death of Kim Jong-il. It thus seems likely that the decision to announce a launch had already been taken by the now-deceased Kim. After his death, the only question that remained was when to announce it.

Revere has also given a few interviews (1|2).

What is interesting about this is that Revere notes “This conversation convinced me that the DPRK was determined to carry out a launch in the near future.”  That is a telling phrase — “convinced me.” In other words, Revere had to do a little intellectual work to draw the (correct) conclusion about the meaning of the North Korean remarks.  It is, of course, completely possible that Davies and Hart, sitting in Beijing, simply did not read between the lines as Revere had done.  They may not have understood why Kim Gye Gwan was sitting in the room in the first place and completely misread what he was saying.

That’s not that hard to believe.  Face-to-face negotiations, across language and culture, are not easy.  This isn’t a simple misunderstanding, but it is a misunderstanding all the same.  A big, fundamental misunderstanding about what each party hoped to achieve from this engagement.

What is harder to understand is how long that misunderstanding persisted.  Chris Nelson added an important detail from a conversation with Revere, namely “that he passed on this information to the appropriate Administration officials, and that they appeared to already be aware of the situation.” Of course, those same officials were very dismissive of reporters who pointed out obvious discrepancies in the North Korean and US unilateral statements.

I point all this out not to lambaste Davies and Hart, so much as to ask whether anyone — inside the Administration or participating in the Track II process — spent much time considering why the North Koreans might be engaging at all. I know I didn’t. Did they really all think that this was about 240,000 tons of food aid?  Or simply pressure by the Chinese?

Of course, perhaps this is simply a complicated way of saying that the US did not understand why North Korea agreed to the Leap Day Deal in the first place.  I guess we knew that the moment the DPRK announced the satellite launch.


  1. J House (History)

    The N Korean regime will not live or die over 240k tons of food aid. The U.S. got snookered. What is being underreported is the fact that the President himself went to S. Korea, gazed across the border and told N Korea not to go ahead with this. They ignore the U.S and up the ante with preparations to go forward with another nuclear test (fizzle?).
    What is the Iranian regime to make of it?

  2. krepon (History)

    The inferences here aren’t clear to me.
    Are you suggesting that the DPRK wanted to have a celebratory satellite launch and then turn the page by means of the Leap Day agreement? If so, how would the reported test preparations for the nuclear device fit in?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think they were locked into the launch and hoped to use the Leap Day Deal to avoid sanctions and so forth. What’s one space launch among parties to a Leap Day Deal? They misjudged the situation entirely — and we didn’t even know what they were judging — but they are no worse off than they would have been had they not tried. The rocket launch was a foregone conclusion, perhaps years in planning.

      Having failed, they are resigned to sanctions, to which they will respond with a nuclear test. Maybe we’ll talk again next year.

      Lather, rinse, repeat. At least that is the hypothesis.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      I am not interested in fanning the flames of war – at all – but it occurs to me that the upcoming test in North Korea might be a test of an Iranian weapon, as a follow-on to the putative low-yield 2010 test. There could be a parallel between Iran/North Korea and Pakistan/China here, where some think that China tested a Pakistani weapon at Lop Nol. And there is the extra incentive that the North Koreans would presumably be glad to have some hard currency.

      Could the food-aid deal have been a set-up to obfuscate the real purpose of the test? We and they know what the pattern looks like: missile launch, international condemnation, nuclear test. This way the missile launch was “misunderstood” by the West.

      Perhaps the Iranian weaponization program was largely halted because it had largely succeeded. Some say it was halted because the US invasion of Iraq gave the Iranians qualms, others say it was halted because the US invasion of Iraq relieved Iranian fears of Iraq. Neither really rings completely true. Weaponization getting far ahead of HEU production, and having done enough testing of the non-nuclear aspects of their foreign-designed warhead, perhaps plus all of the above, might hang together better.

    • Magpie (History)

      So you’re saying (?): the concessions they were offering were (clearly?) worth a lot more than the food.

      They were hoping to buy a deal in which they’d get some nice symbolic food aid to act as the bright packaging, all wrapped around the main product, which was a sort of a nod-and-a-wink agreement for them conduct the launch without getting their arses kicked.

      Kind of a pre-emptive apology.

      Only the mix up now is that the US thought they were getting an unrealistically awesome deal (you’ll do extra chores, and then all you want is a brightly-wrapped box for Christmas? Sure!), while the DRPK failed to communicate the full extent of the deal (uh no, actually we do want something inside the box, Dad. I probably shoulda mentioned that).

      I love how groups of people do stuff way dumber than any one individual in the group would ever do.

    • JohnLopresti (History)

      It seems there is a domestic political victory for the leadership in North Korea following the suspension of the United States offer of food aid.(Yanks did not followthru.) How about resumption of negotiations for the food aid as a separate issue? Then, once a verifiable delivery and distribution of the food aid began to occur, seeking further side-agreements which would revisit the issues related to space launch vehicle technology. I am not sure I would sign this two-track treaty without reading the fine-print; yet, still, it could give the US administration a way to have its own domestic image refurbished while helping North Korea obtain food aid; while simultaneously continuing the joint NK/US 2/29/12 efforts surrounding the meshed issues of arms and space ‘exploitation’. It could be interesting to see how the agreements of 2/29 with respect to fuel enrichment might persist while those other two matters are explored separately from the fuelcentric agreements.

  3. George William Herbert (History)

    This does bring up a question – if the launch was the real goal, would the US and UN and others accept a DPRK which verifiably shut down its nuclear weapons program and any overtly ICBM/IRBMish test flights, but maintained a space launch program?

    Obviously there’s the potential of a later nuclear program return breakout, but all the negotiations have been premised on there being some middle ground all really can agree on. Short of everything the US and UN are demanding, would this be an acceptable middle ground from our perspective?

    It’s not what we were thinking of or looking for. It’s not … great. But would it be unacceptable?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      And would, say, a development path that walked rapidly away from the IRBM/ICBM components (say, to LOX/Kerosene or LOX/LNG motors) be tolerable to the UN and US?

    • Cthippo (History)

      “This does bring up a question – if the launch was the real goal, would the US and UN and others accept a DPRK which verifiably shut down its nuclear weapons program and any overtly ICBM/IRBMish test flights, but maintained a space launch program?”

      Probably not.

      I think the unstated US goal is regime change and nothing short of that will result in lifting the sanctions against the NK government. I may be forgetting something, but I can’t think of a case in recent history where highly visible sanctions were lifted when a government came into compliance with some UNSC resolution or another. The closest I can think of is the sanctions levies against Pakistan after their nuclear test, but that was not because they renounced nuclear weapons, but because we suddenly needed bases for the Afghanistan war.

      It seems as though sanctions, rather than being a tool to encourage compliance with international norms have become the first step to enforced regime change. As Iraq learned and the Iranians are figuring out, the bar for lifting of sanctions is not fixed, but rather is defined as being just beyond whatever you’ve offered to do.

      I suspect that a lot of this is driven by US domestic politics in which countries are divided into “good” and “evil” (You’re with us or against us, remember?). Once a country has been labeled as evil, any lifting of sanctions would be described as weakness and “giving in to the enemy”. It doesn’t matter what the sanctioned country does, once they’ve been labeled as evil, there is no return. Ask the Cubans about that.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      That’s a nice paranoia. It fails to match what would have happened if there was no rocket launch about to happen, though.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Cthippo, I believe what you are describing is what’s called diplomacy. Do you really think the US and others are pushing for regime change? Think about it. The South would have to absorb what will be chaotic hungry masses yearning to travel to the South and live with their long lost relatives and share in their long lost loved ones modern life style, wealth, food, and jobs. The long lost relatives will understandably not want this. Perhaps more importantly, how will the power elite of the North integrate with the power elite of the South? They play entirely different games. Not to mention at some point in the collapse any number of factions will call for a mandate from the heavens, or any number of generalisimos will claim a mandate by infantry division. How will the Chinese react to loss of the client buffer state? Going for regime change in the DPRK is the kind of foolishness a Neo-Con would dream up. Despite the fact that there are some rather strong parallels between the current admin and the last, I don’t think that level of foolishness has been carried along as well.

      George’s point is spot on. The world makes nothing of the Japanese M-5 or the Indian PLSV/GSLV core stage. Those are capable ICBM’s wrapped in a space program. Granted it’s Japan and India. However the world already has several ICBM programs ‘in being’. Assuming the world wants a DPRK, at least for now for the reasons above, how far is the world willing to tolerate a DPRK space program? Ted Molczan and James Oberg (for Wired Mag) are going on record as implying strongly that this is no satellite launch for the stated reasons. Oberg seems to indicate that the Satellite is in fact a dummy.

    • Cthippo (History)

      “Going for regime change in the DPRK is the kind of foolishness a Neo-Con would dream up. Despite the fact that there are some rather strong parallels between the current admin and the last, I don’t think that level of foolishness has been carried along as well.”

      I completely agree, using sanctions to push for regime change is a horrible idea and one that neither China nor South Korea would support. That said, there are plenty of vocal neocons in this country pushing for exactly that outcome. Here’s what the presumptive Republican candidate, arguably the most mainstream in party thought, had to say about it:

      “(Kim Jong-Il’s) death represents an opportunity for America to work with our friends to turn North Korea off the treacherous course it is on and ensure security in the region. America must show leadership at this time. The North Korean people are suffering through a long and brutal national nightmare. I hope the death of Kim Jong-il hastens its end.”

      Gingrich and Santorum’s positions are even more provocative. While these talking heads are not in power in the administration, they are significant because they limit what the administration can do. Jeffery hit it on the head back on March 16th:

      “If the Administration admits it made a mistake (fat chance), its political opponents will use that admission as a cudgel against any future agreement its negotiates anywhere in the world. On the other hand, if the Administration blames North Korea for walking away from an agreement after a few days, then the Administration will get killed in Congress over any future deal.”

      Which brings me back to my original thesis. The Obama administration’s response to this situation is being at least limited, if not driven, by domestic politics. Likewise, any attempt to lift sanctions based on improved NK behavior would be torpedoed by domestic considerations.

      Finally, I think Jeffery just likes writing Plumpy’nut.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Cthippo –

      Domestic considerations had no negative feedback on the food aid package and general de-escalation that accompanied the March agreement. Again – you’re asserting a response that did not happen.

      Yes, some would prefer regime change, and some of those would prefer no negotiation to string that along, preferring to move into a more aggressive stance. That’s not mainstream party doctrine for either party in the US nor a widely held fringe view, though one can identify proponents.

  4. joshua (History)

    We certainly had more skin in the game after 2/29. One could imagine how the North Koreans might have thought it was worth a shot.

    I have this vision of the participants in the Istanbul talks agreeing on a TV break once the launch countdown is announced…

  5. markob (History)

    I have always felt that one of the impediments to successfully negotiated outcomes on proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea is the internal political-propaganda link drawn by hardliners between nuclear-missile-rocket programmes and modernity. If the hypothesis developed in this post is correct, it would really show just how close the link is. Perhaps we should expand North Korea’s options to demonstrate this that goes beyond missiles and nuclear installations.

  6. Melissa (History)
  7. Adam Mion (History)

    Is it possible that North Korea know that Japan, U.S. and South Korea will probably shoot down the missile anyway, and uses it to justify a third nuclear test, this time with the use of enriched uranium? That their safety is threatened because of their peaceful satellite was destroyed by the USA, etc. Whether it is possible that this is their true purpose?

  8. Sam (History)

    “How does the regime in Pyongyang do something really big for his 100th birthday without triggering another regional crisis that will mar all the fun? When your main technical achievements as a nation are missiles and nuclear weapons, your options aren’t that great.”

    The interesting implication of this hypothesis is that the most fruitful path for the next round of diplomacy might be for the US (or someone else) to help the DPRK build up technical expertise in a less frightening field. I wonder if they would go for something like the Kim Il Sung Deep Space Observatory in their territory, funded by the participants of the Six Party Talks, so that next time there’s a big anniversary of something they could celebrate by naming a new galaxy after him instead of launching a rocket…

    Maybe someone more knowledgeable than myself would know if anyone’s ever proposed something like this.

  9. Johnboy (History)

    Err, maybe I’m missing something obvious, but why is armscontrolwonk so fixated on North Korean rocket launches, yet almost totally silent regarding the scheduling of talks between Iran and the P5+1?

    After all, it is axiomatic that this NK missile – no matter how provocatively “fuck you, Western pigs!” it might be – is not going to have any fissile material in it when it goes soaring skywards.

    You know, it’s a rocket, and it’ll have a satellite in it.

    Meanwhile, over in Turkey the Iranians and the P5+1 are going to be, ahem, talking turkey about fissile materials.

    I would have thought that the latter was much the more important topic but, apparently, nobody else here agrees.

    I’m not trying to insinuate anything; I just find it… odd, is all.

  10. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Consider the trajectory. Is the trajectory south by southwest to spare Japanese sensitivities? Is not due south to spare overflying South Korea? Why is it not in the lowest delta-V trajectory given past failures to achieve orbit?

    Is it in fact an attempt to launch a reconnaissance satellite?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The DPRK west coast launch site, used here for the first time, exists specifically to fly south and avoid overflights of SK or Japan.

  11. Cthippo (History)

    News is reporting the launch failed. Some reports indicate the rocket broke up about a minute into the flight.

    Wouldn’t that put it at about first stage burnout and separation? Staging failure, perhaps? I’m sure all of wonkdom is waiting with baited breath for more information.

  12. Mark Lincoln (History)

    A nation which attempted twice to launch a satellite on trajectories that required less energy than the last two which failed has failed again.

    It appears a bit more fuel in the (longer) third stage did not do the trick.

    It appears that the old women of both sexes have failed to be delivered the horror they expected.

    The DPRK remains a nation which is weaker than it ever has been, and who’s power exists largely in the minds of folks overwrought with fears they have devised.

    Perhaps China is right, that the BIG threat to them, and the Republic of Korea, is the collapse of the DPRK regime, not it nuking the USA or Japan for reasons unexplained.

  13. kme (History)

    In a perverse kind of way, the failure of this launch is actually a better outcome for the DPRK’s ICBM program than a success would have been. It is my experience that the persipacious engineer learns far more from an unsuccessful test than a successful one – after all, there is always a definite root cause of a failure, which can now be identified and fixed, whereas success might just mean that you were lucky.

    Not so good for propaganda purposes, though.

  14. David Watson (History)

    So a similar or identical failure to the 2006 launch – perhaps the almost succesful 2009 launch was just ‘lucky’?

    Seems strange though that North Korea can’t get it togther when Iran using identical base technology has a pretty succesful space program going on.

    • Anon2 (History)

      “Seems strange though that North Korea can’t get it togther”

      Not just strange, but unlikely.

      The missile could have either been

      1) Intercepted and destroyed;
      2) Purposefully destroyed by NK using the “command destruct” package to cover-up lack of genuine satellite payload; or
      3) Had a third failure in a row – ex-ante probability about 25%.

      To assume that this was a third failure in a row without objective evidence is “jumping to conclusions”.

  15. George William Herbert (History)

    I’m reflectively considering differences in North Korea’s and Iran’s flight success rates this morning. Given that NK proliferated a lot of tech to Iran, it’s surprising to see that Iran’s had more success. But that’s a general observation, I want to go back vehicle by vehicle (or family by family) through the two programs in more detail and align the success rates of directly comparable tech in the two countries.