The launching of UNHA-3, a North Korean satellite on April 12 2012 was certainly an embarrassing event for the government of North Korea. The satellite was intended to welcome the Kim Jong-Un era in a display of power and strength. Instead, the failure of the satellite merely one minute after launching proved to be very costly for the North Korean government, at an estimated cost of $1 billion. This unsuccessful venture led to another significant event; for the first time the North Korean government publically admitted failure. It is speculated that they were forced to do so because of the prevalence of information technologies such as cellphones, which would have spread the news quickly despite government attempts to control the news.
In 2006 North Korea officially became the world’s eight atomic power after conducting nuclear tests in an underground facility. A second test occurred in 2009, and both events were deemed a success by the North Korean government. International assessments done via satellite and aided by the government of South Korea did not support this view, and instead indicated failure due to a lack of seismic activity and other nuclear indicators. These nuclear tests were done in defiance of the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) urgings to halt nuclear developments, resulting in the creation of UNSC resolution 1718. This resolution imposed various sanctions on North Korea, such as an arms embargo, restrictions on luxury goods and an embargo on any nuclear materials.
Since this time North Korea has decided to continue development on technologies that could be used for nuclear purposes, for instance at their Light Water Reactor facility currently being constructed in Yongbyon. The North Korean government claims the facility will be used to aid domestic energy shortages, but much of the equipment could also be used for a nuclear reactor. Other sites, such as the nuclear scientific research centre and uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon continue to be fully functional.
The North Korean government’s decision to continue development on their nuclear program is what made the launching of UNHA-3 of such international significance. Although the satellite was not a nuclear missile, it uses the same technology as many nuclear weapons. The launching of UNHA-3 was viewed by many in the international community as a test of North Korea’s current nuclear technologies. As well, the choice to launch the satellite was done in blatant violation of several international treaties, including one formed between the United States and North Korea merely a few weeks earlier. Under the terms of this treaty, North Korea had agreed to suspend progress on their nuclear program and allow international monitors to inspect their nuclear facilities in exchange for much needed food aid from the United States. All food aid from the United States was stopped immediately after the launching of the satellite.
Another important ramification of the nuclear program is that it has increased the strain between China and North Korea. China has traditionally been regarded as North Korea’s closest ally, but Chinese officials have begun to express their growing concern with nuclear developments. One of these concerns stems from the fact that the nuclear tests being conducted by North Korea are in the mountainous region along the border with China. Chinese officials have expressed concern over the environmental implications of these tests, such as damage from radiation and chemical leaks. However other than publically urging the North Koreans to slow their program, the Chinese have been hesitant to implement any harsh measures, such as heavy economic sanctions or limitations on food aid.
For the time being it appears that China is more concerned with maintaining regime stability in North Korea than with North Korea becoming a functioning nuclear power. This preference can be attributed to the proximity of North Korea to China; a regime collapse would mean an influx of refugees into China. The relationship between China and North Korea was further strained by the kidnapping of 29 Chinese fishermen by ‘unidentified’ North Koreans on 8 May 2012. This event spurred a public outcry within China, and put more pressure on the Chinese government to deal firmly with their southern neighbours. This event may negatively impact the relations between the two countries in the future by forcing the Chinese government to take a firm stand on matters involving North Korea, including the nuclear program, in order to appease their citizens.
On May 8 2012, North Korea announced they would continue with their nuclear testing despite pressure from the United Nations, United States and China. Although there is no exact data on North Korea’s nuclear project, in 2011 the United States Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, estimated that it would take approximately five years for North Korea to successfully develop a nuclear missile strong enough to reach the United States. The failure of UNHA-3 may show that North Korea needs more than a five year window and that their technology is not nearly as advanced as had been thought. It may also act as proof that sanctions on nuclear technologies entering North Korea are working, as it appears that they lack the sophisticated technology necessary to successfully create functioning nuclear devices.
It would seem that a continuance of sanctions on nuclear weapons is the best way to deter further developments. Other options, such as implementing harsh economic sanctions would not guarantee that money would be taken from nuclear programs and not social programs. International restrictions and treaties have done little in the past to deter the North Koreans from pushing forward with their program. Continuing nuclear-specific sanctions would ensure that the problem is being addressed by directly inhibiting development of destructive nuclear weapons. The decision to continue sanctions would ensure that North Korea remains an emerging, and not imminent threat – at least for the time being.