North Korea launched a long-range rocket Sunday, triggering fresh outrage from an international community already determined to punish Pyongyang for a nuclear test last month.
Here are five questions and answers on what lies behind the global concern over what North Korea insists is a purely scientific space program.
What exactly was launched on Sunday?
North Korea says it was a space launch vehicle (SLV) carrying an Earth observation satellite.
South Korea says it was a long-range missile.
The argument is not so much about the precise specifications of the rocket itself, but about North Korea’s real intentions.
Any orbital SLV employs dual-use technology with potential military, as well as civilian, applications.
The US and allies like South Korea insist that North Korea uses such rocket launches to test out ballistic missile technology with a view to developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.
Pyongyang says its space program is scientific in nature.
Doesn’t North Korea have the right to a space program?
Pyongyang certainly thinks so, but UN sanctions imposed in 2006 as part of efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program prohibit any testing of missile delivery systems.
The UN Security Council deems space rocket launches a violation of that ban.
North Korea’s main diplomatic protector, China, comes down on both sides of the fence, backing the North’s right to space exploration but acknowledging that it must abide by UN resolutions.
North Korea put a satellite in orbit with its first successful rocket launch in December 2012. But experts say the satellite has never functioned, fuelling suspicions about the mission’s scientific veneer.
In short, the technology needed to launch a space satelite is the same as an intercontiental ballistic missile.
How close is North Korea to developing a working ICBM?
In some of its more bellicose statements, North Korea has laid claim to already possessing the ability to strike the US mainland.
Most experts, but not all, reject the idea, insisting that the North is still years away from a credible ICBM strike capability.
While successful rocket launches will have pushed its ballistic missile program forward, the North has shown no indication of mastering the re-entry technology needed to deliver a warhead as far as the US.
There are also questions as to whether it has managed to miniaturise a nuclear device to the extent that it would fit on the tip of a missile.
What happens now?
The UN Security Council is to meet in emergency session and the US and its allies will push for fresh sanctions on North Korea.
But the Security Council has yet to agree on sanctions over the North’s January 6 nuclear test, and China, with its veto power, has been resisting efforts to punish Pyongyang too severely.
There will likely be a surge in tensions on the Korean peninsula, especially after Seoul announced it would enter formal discussions with Washington on the possible deployment of an advanced US missile defence system in the South.
US Pacific Command (USPACOM) said on Friday that it was closely monitoring the situation in North Korea and had many missile-defence assets in the region that would provide “a robust defence.”
“No one should doubt that US Pacific Command forces are prepared to protect the American homeland and defend our allies in South Korea and Japan,” said Pacific Command spokesman US Air Force Captain Cody Chiles.
PACOM commander US Navy Admiral Harry Harris said on January 27 that he supported reviewing the possibility of converting a US Aegis missile-defence test site in Hawaii into acombat-ready facility to bolster US defences against ballistic-missile attacks.
Harris also said after a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that it made sense to put a mobile missile-defence system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in South Korea.
The THAAD system’s mobility and strategic battery-unit placement is designed to counter threats around the globe.
In April 2013, the Pentagondeployed a THAAD battery to
Guam in order to deter North Korean provocations and further defend the Pacific region.
The THAAD missile does not carry a warhead, instead designed to use pure kinetic energy to deliver “hit-to-kill” lethality to ballistic missiles inside or outside of the atmosphere.
What does North Korea want to happen?
North Korea will hope the successful nuclear test and rocket launch will help bring the US to the negotiating table, where Pyongyang hopes it can extract concessions.
It has already announced its intention to carry out more satellite launches in the future.
The United States has ruled out engaging the North until it makes a tangible commitment to de-nuclearisation, but critics say this policy of “strategic patience” has given Pyongyang the room to push ahead with its nuclear weapons program.
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