Beyond The Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Almost a year after Great Leader Kim Jong-Il’s death, North Korea is getting ready for a second attempt to launch a satellite via a long-range rocket. Government spokesmen revealed last Saturday, Dec. 1, that the Korean Committee for Space Technology is preparing for a launch date between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22.

Experts on North Korea say that this launch is meant to bolster the legitimacy of Kim Jong-Un, who is still working to consolidate power after taking over leadership positions from his father after his death on Dec. 17 of last year.

In April of this year, a similar rocket launch was attempted, though the rocket failed soon after leaving the launch pad and disintegrated. North Korean scientists claim that they have learned from the mistakes of that launch and are prepared to “conduct the launching…[transparently].”

Already, the international community is condemning the North Korean announcement. U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874 explicitly prohibit ballistic missile testing by North Korea. Though the North Koreans insist that their rockets are meant to send satellites into orbit, other nations believe it is only a cover story for missile testing.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling the launch “a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region.” Even China, widely seen as North Korea’s big brother in the region, has joined the international community in recent years to renounce such acts of North Korean defiance.

South Korea, which is especially concerned about the North’s announcement, aborted its own satellite launch attempt on Nov. 29 due to a last minute signal problem. Two previous South Korean launch attempts also failed in 2009 and 2010. The North Koreans blame the international community of holding a double standard by allowing the South to freely develop space rocket programs while punishing the North through sanctions.

To date, only the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, India, Israel and Iran have successfully launched a rocket from within their own borders.

The timing of the slated North Korean launch also conveniently coincides with several major political events in the Asia-Pacific. China ushered in a new generation of leaders last month, led by new Community Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, whose views on foreign policy are little known to the international community. In addition to South Korea’s satellite launch attempt, the South Koreans are gearing up for a presidential election on Dec. 19.

Incumbent President Lee Myung-Bak is barred from running due to a constitutional one-term limit. His conservative Saenuri Party has nominated Park Geun-Hye, daughter of former President Park Chung-Hee, leader of the authoritarian regime during the 60’s and 70’s credited with rapid economic growth. The Democratic United Party, which favors more diplomatic engagement with North Korea, has nominated Moon Jae-In, former Chief-of-Staff to President Roh Mu-Hyun. In fear of splitting the anti-Saenuri vote, a strong third-party candidate named Ahn Cheol-Soo withdrew his candidacy in November and endorsed Moon.

It is unclear what consequences North Korea’s launch will have on the South’s election. In current opinion polls, Park holds a slight lead of about 3.5 percent. The fast-paced campaign will see three presidential debates within the next two weeks. The winner will take office in February of next year.

In neighboring Japan, parliamentary elections are slated for Dec. 16 after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved parliament last month. Noda’s party is on track for defeat, with approval ratings dipping below 20 percent.