[Viewpoint] A call for unity before North launch

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[Viewpoint] A call for unity before North launch

North Korea is making headlines again with its highly-publicized plan to launch the so-called earth observation satellite toward the end of next week. It proudly declared that the mission is purely scientific and that the peaceful exploration of space is authorized to all nations.

It ignores the international warning that it would be violating international regulations that ban a nuclear-arms state from firing any long-range missiles, arguing that the Outer Space Treaty is beyond the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

It instead accuses South Korea and Western society of negatively portraying its space mission with double standards. But Pyongyang’s argument gathers few fans or sympathy. In the eyes of the world, North Korea has committed foul play and lied too many times.

The 1967 treaty on the use of outer space is basically thought of as a universal constitution. The treaty that bans and limits placing or testing nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit, however, gives all states liberty in use and exploration of outer space with good intentions. North Korea is under binding resolutions 1695, 1718 and 1874, in the form of criminal punishments from the international community through the vehicle of the UN Security Council for its testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

North Korea is currently prohibited from all ballistic missile activities for both peaceful and military purposes. The international community has demanded “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling” of its weapons of mass destruction program. The international community has aimed to contain North Korea’s ballistic missile program with sanctions.

North Korea received harsh sanctions to an unprecedented degree because of its track record of breaking international laws. When it first fired a long-distance rocket in August 1998, Pyongyang cited its privilege to use outer space. But the country only joined the international convention on outer space after it test-fired a long-range missile for the third time in May 2009. It has been rehearsing its membership claim to send rockets into outer space for more than 10 years, even as the treaty requires prior membership, registration, notification and obligations to international laws and governmental agencies for any space activities.

North Korea did not even notify the treaty members on its first rocket launch. It has yet to join the other conventions and agreements ensuring the safety and return of the spacecraft and astronauts as well as on liability for damages caused by space objects. What other motive can the country have for firing missiles without studying and going through international regulations and laws?

Even if the country indeed has a scientific purpose, the satellite mission just does not make economic sense. A long-distance rocket usually costs around $850 million to develop and launch. That money could buy 2.5 million tons of corn, equivalent to 10 years of the 240,000 metric tons of food aid the United States agreed to provide North Korea in return for the country’s suspension of its missile and nuclear weapons program in February. The country’s dire food shortage is well known. North Korea is begging for humanitarian aid for its starving people, yet is still spending money on rocket launches.

North Korea demands more food aid than the world’s poorest countries. The country’s per capita income is $1,543 as of 2010, richer than Nepal’s $1,210 and Rwanda’s $1,150. Yet the World Food Organization provides North Korea with 195,000 tons of food a year, compared with 29,000 tons and 12,000 tons supplied to Nepal and Rwanda, respectively. To the Pyongyang regime, upholding the legacy of the Kim dynasty by creating a powerful country armed with nuclear arms and missiles is more important than feeding its people.

It would therefore pursue a new rocket launch despite international warnings and condemnations. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed a year ago that North Korea will be able to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland within five years.

On Feb. 25, a North Korean defense committee spokesman warned that the U.S. should not feel safe just because it is across the ocean, claiming that America isn’t the only country that could launch nuclear weapons. Washington has suspended food aid and is moving ships with radars near the Korean Peninsula in preparation for the rocket launch.

If it goes forward with the launch in April, North Korea’s missile program will move beyond the diplomatic agenda to become a major defense threat. The world will have to start seriously seeking a solution to the North Korean nuclear problem that has evolved to pose a potential threat to the U.S. mainland.

South Korea must use all its diplomatic capabilities to build an international consensus that a reunification led by a South Korean democracy could be the best solution. North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 could launch aboard the Unha-3 rocket as soon as next weekend.

*The author is a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

by Jeon Sung-hoon

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