Wednesday May 27, 2020


December 18, 2012

On Wednesday, December 12, North Korea successfully launched its first satellite, sparking international condemnation and complicating security issues in the already tense Northeast Asian region. While North Korea has repeatedly invoked its right to the peaceful use of outer space as justification for this and past attempted satellite launches, American, Japanese, and South Korean government officials believe the satellite launch is a cover for ballistic missile testing, which would be a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions.

The most recent launch came as something of a surprise, as South Korean officials were reporting that the launch had been cancelled due to technical problems. Instead, the Unha-3 type rocket was launched on Wednesday and successfully inserted a North Korean satellite into orbit for the first time. Western scientists have since claimed that the satellite, though in orbit, is inoperative, a claim North Korea has rejected. Regardless, the launch is seen as a political boon for young leader Kim Jong-un, who assumed power after his father’s death in December 2011. The launch will help ensure Kim’s grip on power after what appears to have been a period of political skirmishes with North Korea’s military leaders.

However, while the launch will help Kim consolidate power domestically, it complicates North Korea’s international standing. As in the past, the launch has been strongly condemned by America, Japan, and South Korea as a violation of UN sanctions. In turn, North Korea’s actions put its strongest backer, China, in an unenviable position. China continues to support North Korea because it wants to avoid regime collapse and anarchy in its neighbor, which might lead to a unified Korean peninsula under South Korean rule. However, by supporting North Korea, China runs the risk of increasingly alienating its neighbors, as well as ironically providing justification for an increased U.S. military presence in the region, something China has protested against.

Official Chinese statements on the North Korean launch were measured, expressing “regret” for the launch but also hoping that any action taken by the UN in response will be “prudent and moderate.” However, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman also acknowledged that the launch was in violation of UN resolutions, and warned that instability and uncertainty on the Korean peninsula had increased due to North Korea’s actions. Furthermore, a news analysis of the launch in China’s major newspaper, People’s Daily, expressed concerns that North Korea’s actions could cause more international pressure to be brought to bear on China.

As Zhu Feng, a Professor of International Studies at Peking University, noted, by supporting North Korea, China runs the risk of being identified as standing with North Korea against the rest of the region. This in turn would disrupt China’s ties with its neighbors, especially with South Korea and Japan, during a time when China wants to continue its “peaceful rise” as it tackles domestic issues. The launch is especially troubling for China as it directly preceded major elections in both Japan and South Korea. North Korea’s provocative actions may increase support for more hard-line attitudes in both Japan and South Korea. Japan has already ushered the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party into power. New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his support for a militarized Japan, something China would like to avoid.

The UN reaction to the North Korean launch has been moderate so far, with no call for further sanctions. However, some analysts have speculated that North Korea’s launch may be a precursor to another nuclear test, as both of its previous nuclear tests took place soon after attempted launches. Should this take place, China will indeed come under enormous international pressure to use more forceful methods to control its neighbor and ally. North Korea’s actions, which are notoriously difficult to influence, could have a lasting impact on perception of China in the region and globally.

For more information on the North Korean satellite launch, please see the following news sources:

China Daily- “Launch of rocket is regretful, Beijing says”

Christian Science Monitor- “As North Korea celebrates surprise rocket launch,  alarm mounts abroad”

New York Times- “Despite Risks, China Stays at North Korea’s Side to Keep the U.S. at Bay”

New York Times- “Kim Jong-un Earns Cachet With Rocket’s Success”

Washington Post- N. Korea launches satellite, in defiance of sanctions and pressure from U.S., allies

Xinhua- “China ‘regrets’ DPRK’s satellite launch: FM spokesman”


For Chinese language commentary on the North Korean satellite launch, please see the following news sources:

People’s Daily (人民网)- “外交部:朝鲜射星凸显重启六方会谈紧迫性和重要性”

People’s Daily (人民网)- “朝鲜卫星上天四大悬疑:如何骗过韩国内电发射”

Xinhua (新华网)- “朝鲜‘瞒天过海’射卫星  将强化金正恩威信”


Edited and compiled by Shannon Tiezzi.