The Lessons of Kwangmyongsong-3: Satellite Lauch, Missile Test, Leadership Badge or Bargaining Chip?

Posted on April 12, 2012 by


”]BY BEN HABIB.

***NOTE: An abridged version of this paper was published under the title ‘Learning from North Korea’s missile tests: deterrence, legitimacy and survival’ in The Conversation, 12th April 2012.

In March 2012, North Korea’s external propaganda mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced the impending launch of a satellite, dubbed the Kwangmyongsong-3, during a launch window between the 12th and 16th of April.  While officially, the satellite launch has been slated as a celebration of North Korea’s scientific prowess to mark the centenary of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s birth on April 15th,  most foreign observers view the satellite launch as a cover for a long-range, multi-stage missile test.[i]

A missile test would contravene the recent agreement signed with the United States in February in which North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and uranium enrichment activities, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision, in exchange for American food aid.[ii]  Hence the satellite cover story, making the test appear less provocative to neighbouring countries than an outright violation of previous agreements.

Nonetheless, all parties in Northeast Asia have expressed varying levels of condemnation following Pyongyang’s announcement.  At the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, several leaders talked about the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the wake of Pyongyang’s Kwangmyongsong-3 announcement.  The timing of the Kwangmyongsong-3 announcement was clearly intended as a shot across the bow of summit participants, just as the staging of the summit in Seoul itself was a thinly-veiled signal to the leadership in Pyongyang.

Yet to get bogged down in the standard morality drama that stirs after every North Korean provocation is to be side-tracked from more pertinent considerations.  Diplomatic agreements on the Korean peninsula carry very little weight.  Of greater concern is why North Korea is launching this particular rocket at this particular time.  We can learn a great deal from this event about the technical progress of North Korea’s missile program and thus the operability of its nuclear weapon capability, along with the machinations of domestic politics in Pyongyang as the regime’s leadership transition unfolds.

Long-range Missiles and North Korea’s Nuclear Deterrent

Aspiring nuclear armed powers have to overcome three technical hurdles in order to operationalise their nuclear deterrent.  First, they need to develop a functional explosive nuclear device.  Second, they require reliable systems with which to deliver those nuclear devices to chosen targets.  Finally, the nuclear devices have to be miniaturised so that they can be deployed on the available delivery systems. 

North Korea has fully satisfied one of these criteria by successfully testing a nuclear device in May 2009 (coming after the unsuccessful nuclear test in October 2006).  Foreign observers at present are unsure of the North’s progress toward miniaturisation.  Even if the North lacks a miniaturised weapon, an ambiguous nuclear posture can create some anxiety about undesirable consequences in the decision calculus of an adversary, without committing the deterring state whole heartedly to any specific threat.[iii] 

It is the status of North Korea’s delivery systems that concerns us here.  Suitable delivery systems must exist to carry strategic nuclear warheads to high-cost targets where maximum damage and casualties can be inflicted. 

North Korea possesses reliable short and medium range missile assets.  It’s Scud-C, Nodong and Taepo-dong ballistic missile systems are capable of delivering warheads to targets in South Korea and Japan.  The Scud-C is considered the best short-range missile available on the market to states not allied with the US, with a range of approximately 500 kilometres, more than enough to hit targets in South Korea.  The North is thought to have an inventory of around 600 Scud-C missiles.[iv]  The Nodong is a dependable medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 1,000 kilometres.   

Pyongyang’s developmental long-range missiles are not nearly as reliable.  Its Taepo-dong I missile system has a longer range of up to 2,300 kilometres, consisting of a three-stage conglomeration of a Scud-C short-range missile mounted on a Nodong rocket, with a small third stage booster to deliver the final payload.[v] 

On 31 August 1998, the regime tested a prototype multi-stage Taepo-dong I missile from a test facility at Musudan-ri with the stated intention of placing a small satellite into orbit.  The three rocket stages separated successfully but the final booster stage exploded, destroying the satellite.[vi]   On 5 April 2009 the DPRK again launched a new Unha-2 multi-stage rocket for the ostensible purpose of placing a satellite into orbit, which foreign observers believed to be a clandestine long-range rocket test.[vii]  Though ultimately described as a failure, the final stage of the rocket did manage to fly 2,700 kilometres before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, a more successful result than previous tests.[viii] 

There is little doubt about the reliability of North Korea’s short and medium range missile capability. However, the failure in testing of its long-range missiles indicates that they are in the developmental phase.  These missiles also appear to lack a reliable re-entry vehicle within which to house nuclear warheads and they re-enter the atmosphere en route to their target.[ix]  Until these technical issues have been rectified, questions remain about the operability of North Korea’s long-range missiles as a delivery system for a nuclear warhead.[x]  The Kwangmyongsong-3 launch may provide more definitive evidence on this question.

Leadership Transition and Regime Survival

The leadership transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un hangs like a cloud over everything happening in North Korea at the present time.  Foreign observers are yet to distil exactly who is holding the reins of power in Pyongyang.[xi]  At this early stage, it is unclear whether Kim Jong-un is completely in charge, is a figurehead, or is involved in a contest for power with other actors.

Given Kim Jong-un is less than thirty years of age, a question mark hangs over his ability to command the leadership. Kim Jong-un needs to have established a network of institutional attachments and personal loyalties as the foundation of his claims to the leadership.  Potential succession candidates need to establish their own institutional attachments and personal loyalties as the foundation of their claims to future leadership. For a smooth transition to take place, Kim Jong-un needs to be acceptable to a sizeable majority of the high-level elites, particularly in theKPA.

As has been suggested of the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010, the April 2012 satellite launch may represent an attempt to bolster Kim Jong-un’s succession prospects.[xii]  Such bold provocations may have been deemed necessary to secure institutional support for Kim Jong-un, in the absence of a long grooming period in which the youthful new leader could cultivate a support base within the military and the Party.

Questions about the leadership transition inevitably lead us to consider the viability of the North Korean state itself. North Korea has been a borderline failed state since 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters combined with long-term decay of the country’s command economy and totalitarian political architecture to bring the Kim regime to the brink of collapse. Kim Jong-il was able to preserve the regime through this difficult period on the back of international aid and a series of ad hoc economic adjustments.

Foreign observers often state that North Korea needs to reform its economy to ensure its long-term survival, which implies that the North Korean economy should be fully marketized and integrated into the global economy. This would require a change in ideological discourse leading to changes in economic policies to restructure the labour system, an overhaul wage incentives for worker, and the prioritization of profit seeking amongst productive entities.[xiii] What has occurred instead has been limited reform within the command system, involving procedural tinkering to increase efficiency within the existing ideological and economic framework. 

To underwrite its efforts at systemic maintenance, Pyongyang has pursued a strategy known as coercive bargaining, in which deliberate, directed provocations put pressure on the US and regional states to provide material inducements to persuade the regime to pull back from the brink.[xiv]  Once a crisis has been engineered, Pyongyang issues new demands or restates previous claims as conditions for de-escalation and a return to negotiations.  The aid, concessions and development assistance bargained from regional states in return for de-escalation has been critical in plugging holes in the system and allowing the regime to avoid substantive economic reforms.

With the possibility of a return to negotiations presaged by the February 2012 agreement, one could interpret the April 2012 satellite launch as another in a long line of Pyongyang’s engineered crises, as an attempt to maximise its bargaining leverage before negotiations recommence.

The Lessons of Kwangmyongsong-3

In summary, the North’s Kwangmyongsong-3 rocket launch is likely to yield important insights in three areas of interest to North Korea watchers.  First, the relative success of North Korea’s rocket launch is likely to yield insights into the operability of the North’s overall nuclear weapons capability and specifically its ability to deliver a nuclear payload to targets at distances beyond 1,000 kilometres.  Second, it would appear to fit with a longer trend of provocations dating back to the Cheonan incident in 2010 that have been linked to the legitimisation of Kim Jong-un’s leadership credentials.  Finally, with the potential restart of negotiations with Washington in the offing, the launch indicates that coercive bargaining is likely to remain Pyongyang’s modus operandi in international negotiations under the new leadership.


[i]DPRK to Launch Application Satellite,” Korean Central News Agency, 16 March 2012.

[ii] Steven Lee Myers and Sang-hun Choe, “North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid,” New York Times, 29 February 2012.

[iii] Glenn Snyder, Deterrence and Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). 246.

[iv] Andrew Scobell and John Sanford, “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles,” (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 113-14.

[v] Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “North Korea’s nuclear program, 2005,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61, no. 5 (2005): 61, 64-67. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country  (Melbourne: Scribe, 2004). 80.

[vi] Scobell and Sanford, “North Korea’s Military Threat,” 114; North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment,   (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2004). 105.

[vii]KCNA on DPRK’s Successful Launch of Satellite Kwangmyongsong-2,” Korean Central News Agency, 5 April 2009.

[viii] “North Korea Launches Long-range Rocket, Claims Success,” Yonhap News Agency North Korea Newsletter 49(2009): 49.

[ix] Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce, “Winning, not Playing the Nuclear Game with North Korea,” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, 2 June 2009.

[x] Regardless of the weapon’s operational status, Douglas Paal believes that the threat posed by Taepo-dong rockets is relatively small, due to the North’s limited industrial capacity which may not be capable of manufacturing large numbers of long-range missiles.  See: Douglas Paal, “North Korea Poses No Real Threat to the World,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 May 2009.

[xi] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, “The Missile Launch Announcement,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, 16 March 2012.

[xii] Victor Cha, “The Sinking of the Cheonan,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 April 2010; Jesse Karotkin, “All Eyes on China in Wake of Cheonan Sinking,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief X, no. 11 (2010).

[xiii] Young-chul Chung, “North Korean Reform and Opening: Dual Strategy and ‘Silli (Practical) Socialism’,” Pacific Affairs 77, no. 2 (2004): 286.

[xiv] Victor Cha, “Why We Must Pursue ‘Hawk’ Engagement,” in North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, ed. V Cha and D Kang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 72. Won-hyuk  Lim, “North Korea’s Missile Tests: Malign Neglect Meets Brinkmanship,” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, 7 August 2006.

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This video features North Korean official Pae Kum Chol discussing the official justification for the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch.

[Courtesy of Korean Central News Agency]


[i]DPRK to Launch Application Satellite,” Korean Central News Agency, 16 March 2012.

[ii] Steven Lee Myers and Sang-hun Choe, “North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid,” New York Times, 29 February 2012.

[iii] Glenn Snyder, Deterrence and Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961). 246.

[iv] Andrew Scobell and John Sanford, “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles,” (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 113-14.

[v] Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “North Korea’s nuclear program, 2005,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61, no. 5 (2005): 61, 64-67. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country  (Melbourne: Scribe, 2004). 80.

[vi] Scobell and Sanford, “North Korea’s Military Threat,” 114; North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A Net Assessment,   (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2004). 105.

[vii]KCNA on DPRK’s Successful Launch of Satellite Kwangmyongsong-2,” Korean Central News Agency, 5 April 2009.

[viii] “North Korea Launches Long-range Rocket, Claims Success,” Yonhap News Agency North Korea Newsletter 49(2009): 49.

[ix] Peter Hayes and Scott Bruce, “Winning, not Playing the Nuclear Game with North Korea,” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, 2 June 2009.

[x] Regardless of the weapon’s operational status, Douglas Paal believes that the threat posed by Taepo-dong rockets is relatively small, due to the North’s limited industrial capacity which may not be capable of manufacturing large numbers of long-range missiles.  See: Douglas Paal, “North Korea Poses No Real Threat to the World,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 May 2009.

[xi] Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, “The Missile Launch Announcement,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, 16 March 2012.

[xii] Victor Cha, “The Sinking of the Cheonan,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 April 2010; Jesse Karotkin, “All Eyes on China in Wake of Cheonan Sinking,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief X, no. 11 (2010).

[xiii] Young-chul Chung, “North Korean Reform and Opening: Dual Strategy and ‘Silli (Practical) Socialism’,” Pacific Affairs 77, no. 2 (2004): 286.

[xiv] Victor Cha, “Why We Must Pursue ‘Hawk’ Engagement,” in North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, ed. V Cha and D Kang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 72. Won-hyuk  Lim, “North Korea’s Missile Tests: Malign Neglect Meets Brinkmanship,” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, 7 August 2006.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

 The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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