Special to WorldTribune.com
SEOUL — North Korea’s claim of a serious scientific reason for planning to fire off a long-range missile next month with a satellite for a payload is couched in such sincere-sounding lingo that one has to wonder if the North’s scientists and engineers actually may have something in mind there.
Kwangmyogsong-3, as North Korea has dubbed the satellite, “is a precious result of scientific researches conducted by scientists and technicians”. The sole reason for wanting to put it in orbit, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), is “to develop and utilize working satellites indispensable for the country’s economic development, pursuant to the government’s policy for the peaceful development and use of space.”
But what, one might ask, is the significance of the number 3 after Kwangmyogsong, which means “brilliant star”? The answer is that North Korea claims to have already launched numbers 1 and 2 when the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, shocked the world by firing off earlier versions of the same missile with the satellite on board.
And “when the DPRK launched two experimental satellites, it strictly abided by relevant international regulations and practice”, said KCNA. Those claims sounded so sincere at the time that Daniel Pinkston, the International Crisis Group’s guru in Seoul, staged a well-attended press conference, put out releases and wrote commentaries telling everyone the North Koreans had every right in the world to go launching satellites, just like every other self-respecting country with big dreams.
The only problem was that the satellites were never seen in orbit by scientists in the U.S., Russia, South Korea and Japan and everywhere else they monitor that stuff. The DPRK mentions them only occasionally — and then to give the impression they’re comfortably circling the Earth doing whatever they were supposed to be doing, presumably to the same patriotic music they were said to be emitting when they were launched.
In truth, however, the real question is whether any satellites were launched at all — or whether the missiles that bore them in arcs over the western Pacific were carrying satellites or simply some shiny material designed to look like satellites at the time of liftoff. Why should an impoverished country like North Korea, begging for food from foreign donors bother to build a satellite when it could just as easily fabricate a dummy and convince its people the enormous investment is paying off?
This time, however, the story may be a little different. The occasion for the launch is the vast celebration for the 100th birth anniversary on April 15 of the North’s founding leader, and still “eternal president”, Kim Il-Sung.
The North Koreans have been planning for this event for the past five years, at least. I saw bright lights shining with the anniversary date when I last attended the Arirang show in May Day Stadium by the Daedong River in the capital Pyongyang three-and-a-half years ago. The Arirang show, featuring 50,000 people on one entire side of the stadium flashing cards to form mosaics of heroic scenes while another 50,000 prance, dance, parade and pirouette on the field, normally goes on nightly for weeks. It’s hard to imagine any show more grandiose and glorious, but for sure the North Koreans will do their best to outdo past performances.
What could be better, then, than to put on a live launch for the whole world to see? As the KCNA dispatch, keeping a straight face, solemnly informed its readers regarding the launch of what it portentously called “the working satellite”, the North has already “sent necessary information to the relevant international bodies according to international regulations and procedures”. Not only that, but the DPRK also “expressed the will to invite experts and journalists of other countries to view the launching station”.
In other words, unlike the previous launches, which no one knew about until the missiles-cum-satellites were airborne, hurtling far above the main Japanese island of Honshu, much to the annoyance of the Japanese, the next launch will be very much a public event. Public, that is, except that it strains all credibility to think that anyone with any expertise would be able to get close enough to the contraption pre-launch to see if the thing it’s carrying was really a satellite.
The North Koreans, nothing if not skilled at bamboozling American negotiators, know they have to put up a bold front to pull this one off without seriously jeopardizing the deal they supposedly made in talks in Beijing on Feb. 29. Remember that one? That was when the neophyte U.S. special envoy, Glyn Davies, got succored by the wily North Korean veteran Kim Kye-Gwan into more or less believing the North Koreans had agreed to a “moratorium” on testing of long-range missiles and, of course, nuclear devices.
Or did they? Is this thing down in writing, like a contract, or was it all wishful thinking, extrapolations from conversations, embroidered in agreed-upon announcements by both sides afterward?
The bottom line for the North Koreans, regardless of what they do, is that they still want to be sure of getting 240,000 tons of food aid that the U.S. promised in the same talks — not rice for the North’s 1.1 million troops but biscuits and soy sauce and the like for pregnant women, and kids below the age of five.
How are the North Koreans going to get the U.S. to begin shipping in all that food, at the rate of 20,000 tons a month over the course of a year, if they’ve just fired a long-range missile that’s capable in theory of carrying not merely a dummy satellite but a weapon of mass destruction, nuclear, biological or chemical, as far as the U.S. west coast? And would they still have a chance if they happened to follow up the missile-cum-satellite launch with a third underground nuclear test — just as they did in May 2009 the month after their last missile launch?
Sure, no problem. For starters, the North Koreans can make a show of inviting in inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to sniff around their main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang.
The North Koreans kicked them all out, for the second time, three years ago before their last round of long-range-missile-and-nuclear tests, but there’s no harm in having them back if that’s what it takes to appease foreign critics. They won’t go near the sites for launching missiles and testing nukes — they’re nowhere near Yongbyon.
As for getting all that food, the next step would be, fine, let’s all return to the six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, including the U.S., Japan and Russia plus the two Koreas.
Eventually, the talks would end in another statement, another agreement, and the shipments would begin.
Only this time, the North Koreans might bargain for the kind of food they want the most — fodder for the troops, not baby food for little kids. That might be a hard bargain, but the North’s got a little time on its side.
Americans and South Koreans are both electing new presidents later this year, and new governments in Washington and Seoul may want to forgive and forget — that is, until the next crisis and the next cycle of talking and testing.