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North Korea's Satellite Is Orbiting Normally

South Korean monitors are reporting that the satellite carried by the North Korean rocket is orbiting normally, although it's too soon to tell if it's actually working.

by Derek Mead
Dec 13 2012, 3:59pm
South Koreans protest the rocket launch, via the Guardian

UPDATE 12/17: It appears that the satellite is confirmed to be out of control and dead.

North Korea successfully launched a payload into space yesterday, which pretty much pissed off everyone. Now South Korean monitors are reporting that the satellite carried by the North Korean rocket is orbiting normally, although it's too soon to tell if it's actually working (and no one's really sure what it's supposed to do anyway).

That announcement conflicts with the announcement from US officials yesterday that said the satellite was "tumbling out of control." Now, they both could possibly be true for a bit–the satellite could have some sort of disastrous spin and still make it around the globe–but the satellite's smooth orbital path suggests that it's cruising normally. So now what?

Well, Reuters is reporting that North Korea's logical next step is another nuclear test, this time with a long range rocket:

A nuclear test would be the logical follow-up to Wednesday's successful rocket launch, analysts said. The North's 2009 test came on May 25, a month after a rocket launch.

For the North and its absolute ruler Kim Jong-un, the costs of the rocket program and its allied nuclear weapons efforts - estimated by South Korea's government at $2.8-$3.2 billion since 1998 - and the risk of additional U.N. or unilateral sanctions are simply not part of the calculation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is trying to figure out how to deal with North Korea's sudden boost in missile capability. Remember, until now few people expected that North Korea's rocket would work, and the fact that it did has left North Korea particularly defiant in the face of potential new sanctions. The UN Security Council, which would normally package and hand down those sanctions, is still optimistic. Again from Reuters:

The United Nations Security Council is to discuss how to respond to the launch, which it says is a breach of sanctions imposed in 2006 and 2009 that banned the isolated and impoverished state from missile and nuclear developments in the wake of its two nuclear weapons tests.

The only surprise is that the Security Council appears to believe it can dissuade Pyongyang, now on its third hereditary ruler since its foundation in 1948, from further nuclear or rocket tests.

Even China, the North's only major diplomatic backer, has limited clout on a state whose policy of self reliance is backed up by an ideology that states: "No matter how precious peace is, we will never beg for peace. Peace lies at the end of the barrel of our gun."

Basically, North Korea knows it has the political upper hand right now. It doesn't give two hoots about the UN threatening it with sanctions, and while its being roundly condemned for launching the rocket, it being a success means that's Pyongyang has changed the discussion. No longer can outside nations say that they don't want North Korea to continue trying to develop a successful rocket; instead, they have to try to dissuade the country from launching more tests, which is now a tougher bargaining point.

Still, there's one bright spot amid the whole mess: North Korea launching a rocket successfully (again, how well it delivered its payload has yet to be seen) doesn't mean that North Korea suddenly has a kick-ass ICBM program. As the Washington Post noted:

A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapproval each time it stages an expensive launch. North Korea will need larger and more dependable missiles, and more advanced nuclear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it already poses a threat to its neighbors.

“One success indicates progress, but not victory, and there is a huge gap between being able to make a system work once and having a system that is reliable enough to be militarily useful,” said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer and a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank on space policy.

The North Korean launch has absolutely changed the politics of East Asia, and it will take time to see how things shake out. But while North Korea does seem to have put its satellite into orbit successfully, diplomats seem to be more stressed out about the future than the present. In any case, expect the UN to try to reprimand North Korea in some fashion soon, a move that North Korea is undoubtedly going to try to push back against.