North Korea joins ICBM club —but why now?
North Korea announced Dec. 12 that it had successfully launched a satellite into orbit atop a three-stage rocket. "The launch of the second version of our Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province by carrier rocket Unha-3 on December 12 was successful," North Korea's news agency, KCNA, reported. "The satellite has entered the orbit as planned." Efforts to launch a satellite last April failed when the rocket exploded moments after lift-off. This time, the effort appears to have succeeded. The US mobilized four warships to track the launch, and Japan's government issued orders to its military to shoot down any rocket debris that entered its territory. The first stage splashed into Yellow Sea, the second into the Philippine Sea north of Luzon Island; the third remains in orbit. This means North Korea now has the ability to go "exo-atmospheric"—a capacity that could be used in an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). The US maintains the launch constitutes a test of long-range missile technology banned under UN resolutions.
The success—reportedly met with widespread (compulsory?) rejoicing throughout North Korea—follows numerous past attempts. Current ruler Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, presided over flawed missile launches in 2006 and 2009. The launch seemed timed of the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il last December. The launch also falls within the centennial year of the birth of North Korea's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, the incumbent's grandfather. But the launch may also be in response to an agreement by the United States last month allowing South Korea to build ballistic missiles with a range of 800 kilometers—that is, capable of targeting all of North Korea's territory. South Korean missiles, which fall under joint command with the US, were formerly limited to a range of 300 kilometers. South Korea is also developing its own satellite launch capability, with Seoul announcing postponement of its third attempt last month, after two previous failures. (Korea Policy Institute, ABC News, CNN, Quartz, Dec. 12; BBC News, Dec. 7; CNN, Nov. 29; CNN, Oct. 7)