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As North Korea Prepares to Launch a Rocket, Everyone Else Prepares to Freak Out About It

North Korea has announced plans to launch satellite into orbit sometime in the next week, and neighboring powers, including the regime's friends, are not pleased.
February 6, 2016, 9:10pm
View of 2012 launch from North Korean launch control center (Photo via EPA/KCNA)

North Korea has announced that it intends to launch a observation satellite into orbit sometime in the next week, exercising what it declares to be its national right to pursue a space program. Pyongyang told two United Nations agencies this week of its plans to launch the Kwangmyongsong ("Bright Star") satellite, which it says will have a four-year lifespan.

The country initially said the launch would occur sometime between February 8 and February 25, a window that coincided with the country's upcoming celebrations to honor the late ruler Kim Jong-il's birthday on February 16. On Saturday, however, the range was changed to February 7-14, reportedly because the rocket is ready and weather conditions are favorable. February 14 is also "Generalissimo Day" in North Korea, a public holiday that celebrates Kim Jong-il.

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An analysis of satellite images by experts at the Johns Hopkins-affiliated site 38 North indicates that final preparations are already underway at the launch site. South Korea, Japan, and the United States have rushed to condemn the impending launch.

Even though Kim Jong-un's regime maintains that its rockets are part of a peaceful scientific endeavor, North Korea's neighbors and adversaries believe the opposite. North Korea's efforts at a space program are viewed internationally as a cover for the development and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Under UN resolution 1718, passed in 2006, North Korea is banned not just from pursuing a nuclear program, but from conducting such launches because of the potential dual-use application.

Related: North Korea's Rebranded Space Agency Is Basically Just Building Nuclear Missiles

Defiant of this ban, Pyongyang successfully put a satellite into orbit in 2012, after a few previous failed attempts. According to South Korean intelligence officials, the 2012 launch was actually a test of a missile that could hit targets on the West Coast of the United States. And though analysts say that North Korea still has a ways to go to before it can operationally deploy an ICBM, the new announcement of a proposed satellite launch is still a major incident in the making.

North Korea is known for both self-glorification and subterfuge, so separating fact from fiction in its behavior and declarations is something of a challenge. Pyongyang's assertions about launches, tests, and missiles always have to be taken with skepticism, like the recent claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb. Last May, the regime said it successfully tested its first submarine-launched missile, which the government floridly declared to be a "world-level strategic weapon capable of striking and wiping out in any waters the hostile forces infringing upon [North Korea's] sovereignty and dignity." Experts later concluded that photographs of the event released by the regime were doctored.

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Watch the VICE News documentary Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang:

Both the Japanese and South Korean defense ministries have announced the deployment of missile defense systems, promising to shoot out of the sky any missile pieces that enter their airspace.

"If North Korea goes ahead and launches the rocket, it would clearly violate UN Security Council resolutions and pose a serious provocation," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in parliament after the news broke. "The reality is that it is a launch of a ballistic missile."

South Korea went a step further, promising unspecified but harsh consequences. "We warn that if North Korea proceeds with a long-range missile launch," stated South Korean presidential official Cho Tae-Yang, "the international society will ensure that the North pays searing consequences for it."

The US was quick to pour cold water on the Kim regime's exultant assertions that it tested a hydrogen bomb in January, its fourth nuclear test and the first since 2013, but has been campaigning for a sanctions package to punish the flagrant violation of UN resolutions. This follow-up provocation renews the effort.

Related: Yes, North Korea Probably Tested an H-Bomb — Just Not the Kind You're Thinking Of

Even China, North Korea's largest trading partner, voiced concern, positioning itself against any moves that might bring instability to the Korean peninsula. On Wednesday, Chinese spokesman Lu Kang urged Pyongyang not to do anything that would increase tensions with South Korea, but managed to place a bit of blame at Washington's feet. Lu argued that the launch and recent nuclear testing were the consequence of "constant outcry for pressure and sanctions."

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Lu also condemned the "pursuit of selfish gains," though it was not clear if he meant the US, North Korea, or both.

Though Lu characterized North Korea's behavior as a slap in the face for the US, the North Korean announcement is also seen as an indignity for China. The impending launch was announced while Beijing's special representative for Korean-peninsular affairs was visiting Pyongyang. The launch window also coincides with China's Spring Festival to mark the Lunar New Year. North Korea has done this a few times before, sparking an international crisis during its ally's celebrations, a habit that appears to show a growing disrespect for Beijing.

Russia also spoke out against Pyongyang's plans and requested that the rocket launch be cancelled. North Korea is one of the few current areas of general agreement between the White House and the Kremlin.

This cascade of reaction is the latest act in a cyclical series of provocations and backlashes that have characterized North Korean relations with the rest of the world over the last decade. South Korea, Japan, the United States, and even China are all eyeing Pyongyang's effort toward nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities with worry — and so far, the one thing North Korea has succeeded in doing is pushing the buttons of its neighbors and regional powers, amid increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett