North Korea Prepares to Mark a Milestone
Oct. 7, 2015
North Korea's leaders are preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea. They've hinted at plans to mark the occasion by sending a satellite into orbit. Leaders of other countries are concerned that may be a cover for the launch of a long-range ballistic missile.
North Korean state-run media said last month that a new earth-observation satellite was in the final phase of development. Analysts took this as a sign that they're getting ready to launch a long-range missile.
The foreign ministers of Japan, the United States and South Korea gathered last week in New York to discuss their response. They agreed a launch would violate UN Security Council resolutions and decided they would urge North Korean leaders to exercise self-restraint.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said "we can further tighten sanctions against North Korea. It would become more isolated, not only economically but also diplomatically."
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong dismissed criticisms raised by South Korea, Japan and other countries, saying "the North Korean government will defend its dignity by taking all available actions against the injustice of prohibiting a peaceful satellite launch." Ri said nothing about when a launch might happen.
Chronology of North Korea's Missile and Nuclear Programs
North Korean leaders have a long history of provocation and broken promises. They've spent decades developing their nuclear capabilities and ballistic missiles, while threatening to use them.
US intelligence agencies realized in the 1980s that North Korea was building a nuclear facility. Leaders in Pyongyang said it was for peaceful purposes. Their missile program also raised concerns.
In 2003, delegates from four neighboring countries and the U.S. sat down with a North Korean negotiator in an attempt to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Two years later they issued a statement saying they'd reached a deal for North Korea to stop all nuclear development.
That turned out to be false hope. In 2006, North Korea announced it had conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon. On another occasion, the country launched seven missiles in a single day. Analysts estimated that one of them had a range long enough to reach Alaska.
In 2009, leaders in Pyongyang drew international condemnation for sending a rocket into space. They claimed they were launching a satellite. Analysts said it was more likely a missile. The following month, North Korea carried out another underground nuclear test. The UN Security Council responded by passing a resolution imposing tougher sanctions.
The country got a new leader in late 2011, raising hopes that Kim Jong-un would usher in a new era. He sent delegates to talks with the US in Beijing, where a deal was struck. The US would send food aid in return for North Korea stopping programs to enrich uranium and allowing international inspectors into the country's nuclear facilities.
Just two months later, Kim raised international concerns when he ordered the launch of a rocket that failed just after liftoff. He tried again in December and this one flew over the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning North Korea, which responded with a threat of long-distance rockets targeting the US.
In February 2013, monitors detected seismic activity near a nuclear test site and North Korea confirmed that it had set off an explosion. Experts say the country has been trying to position itself as a nuclear power, so it can negotiate on an equal footing with the US.
We were joined by University of Shizuoka professor Hajime Izumi, an expert on Korean issues.
Beppu: There was heightened attention to North Korea this week, as it was thought there could be a rocket launch. But there don't seem to be any signs that they're preparing to do that. What happened?
Izumi: Maybe our assumption was wrong. From our point of view, the upcoming event should be very significant, and a turning point to get to a new stage. Under such an assumption, we would think that North Korea would launch a rocket to celebrate. But I don't think North Korea has such an intention. To celebrate the event in October is quite important for them, but it will not be a turning point. It is not a new era of Kim Jong-un. It is just a process to continue Kim Jong-un's leadership. It is not necessary for them to do something special to mark the occasion in October.
Beppu: You were recently in Pyongyang. How did things seem when you were there?
Izumi: When I was there I talked a lot with my North Korean counterparts. I heard that the preparations for the event have been very low key.
Shibuya: Still, North Korea seems to be keeping the international community on its toes. What is the aim here?
Izumi: I think they want to emphasize their position on the satellite launch. They always emphasize that launching satellites is the right of all sovereign countries. Now, China's and Russia's positions are a little different from the international community. They say that missile launching and satellite launching are quite different. Maybe sometime in the future, China and Russia will agree with the North Korean position that launching a satellite peacefully is a right of a sovereign country. I think that North Korea is expecting to get some recognition for their position.
Beppu: What about the United States? How are they dealing with the issue?
Izumi: I think there is not really a prospect for a new mood between Washington and Pyongyang. Pyongyang has no intention to improve the relationship with the US first. Maybe South Korea will do it first. Some have said that after the October 10th event, things may start with both Koreas.