On February 7, 2016 (Juche 105), the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un orbited an earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4.
This launch is part of the North Korea’s five-year plan for aerospace development – a project to which the North Korean leader attaches great relevance.
It is the other part – the most important and technologically independent part – of North Korea’s non-conventional military system.
The three-stage carrier rocket blasted off from the Sohae Space Centre in the Cholsan County, North Pyongyan Province, at 9 a.m. local time on February 7 and entered its present orbit at 9.09:46 a,m., 9 minutes and 46 seconds after the lift-off.
The satellite revolves round the polar orbit at 494.6 km perigee altitude and at 500 km apogee altitude at a tilt angle of 97.4 degrees.
The satellite cycle is 94 minutes and 24 seconds.
Measuring equipment and telecommunications apparatuses were installed in the earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4.
Moreover, after the separation of the carrier stages, the third component of the missile was immediately broken apart into about 270 fragments, so as to prevent South Korea from discovering and recovering it, thus inferring its characteristics.
The first stage fell onto the area that North Korea had indicated to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the second reached up to the Philippines’s East coast.
The “Bright Star” satellite (this is exactly what its name means in Korean language) even flew over the stadium in which the Superbowl had taken place – one hour after the end of the sport event, in an area very close to the Silicon Valley.
The Unha rocket that launched the “Bright Star” into space orbit is also a version of Taepodong-2, the nuclear carrier which can hit targets up to 4,000-4,500 kilometres.
Hence it was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which has immediately alarmed Japan, the United States and, of course, South Korea.
What is the use of the satellite structure, over and above demonstrating the high quality achieved by North Korean science and technology?
According to the news currently coming from North Korea, the satellite will monitor weather conditions and will explore forest resources and the availability of raw materials which are still interesting for the North Korean government.
The other satellite already in orbit is only calibrated to manage telecommunications.
Nevertheless, what is the use of the North Korean overall missile and nuclear strategy, in addition to obviously increasing the prestige and security of that regime?
We can rationally assume some motivations.
Firstly, it would be a military or technological action designed to obtaining special concessions at diplomatic and international levels so as to stabilize its political system.
North Korea is afraid of melting in the globalization of its geopolitical region – hence of losing strategic, military and economic privileges currently enabling it to have its large military build up.
Hence a large amount of missile and nuclear technology to offset the threat against countries, starting from South Korea, which maintain a certainly more relevant financial and production structure than North Korea’s.
Secondly, for North Korea the use of technologically-advanced weapons and the constant threat of their use mean forcibly internationalize the historical crisis of the entire Korean peninsula, still divided along the 38th parallel, so as to put this issue high both on the US and Chinese agendas.
My friend Bob Gallucci remembers all too well that the negotiations with North Korea in 1994 and 2003 were based on the comparative reliability and rationality of that regime, which could accept a reduction of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the construction of a large nuclear power plant.
And, above all, in exchange for the recognition of its stability and political autonomy.
Gallucci’s deal failed also due to the US reluctance to accept a negotiating line with North Korea which, in fact, finally walked out of the final agreement.
North Korea still pays great attention to the US moves. Any action taken by the North Korean regime is always a coded message conveyed to the United States to clearly show that North Korea can negotiate seriously only at a specific condition: to be a full member of the Asian system, on an equal footing and with the same dignity as Japan’s and South Korea’s.
But only with the explicit mediation and brokerage of China, the United States and, above all, the Russian Federation, the only one which can really negotiate an effective agreement between North Korea and the major global and regional powers.
Only Russia can interact with the DPRK in order to instil confidence in the Korean counterparts on the reliability and stability of negotiations. Only Russia can guarantee the effects of a future agreement – also at militarily level.
Russia is far enough away not to worry the regional powers and it is reliable for North Korea which has never included it in the list of its enemies. It is a credible power both for the United States, which certainly cannot do much with the DPRK, and for China, which is not worried by this new guarantee role played by Russia on the Korean peninsula.
Moreover the DPRK has the primary need to stabilize its political regime, which has not the economic bases for a peaceful power projection.
Furthermore, North Korea’s military system is calibrated to prevent any direct internal political destabilization attempts made by external enemies.
In the history of military nuclear power, North Korea’s is the first case in which these defence technologies are used primarily to preserve its own internal political system.
Obviously North Korea’s nuclear power has also a compensatory function: to offset – with its non-conventional ABC weapons – the inevitable tactical and logistical weaknesses of its conventional military system.
A system which, however, must ever more shrink in volume to make available the resources necessary for the development of the economy – and it is well-known that the nuclear threat is cheaper than the traditional conventional build up.
The first DPRK nuclear test dates back to October 2006.
Right away, the UN Security Council issued a series of Resolutions which lasted until 2013.
Tough and consistent economic sanctions certainly increased the costs of North Korea’s nuclear program and were a good example for all the countries which wished to imitate the DPKR “isolationist” strategy.
In the specific case of North Korea, however, the sanction system did not lead to any significant results.
Indeed, in 2015 North Korea reaffirmed the goal of byungjin, namely the “parallel development” of domestic economy and nuclear deterrence.
In principle, sanctions slow down the military development we want to prevent, but do not stop it.
Just centralize – as North Korea has done – military and economic planning, as well as operate outside the international channels for the acquisition of “sensitive” technologies.
It is also worth recalling that the sanctions imposed on North Korea were calibrated for a “rational political operator”.
For the DPRK this meant that the benefits inherent in negotiating would be greater than the costs of an autonomous action and of a negotiating stalemate.
This was not the case: political systems do not always follow the political science rule of rational choice, but they are often interested in operating as free riders that gain more from the isolated refusal of the collective action benefits – according to Mancur Olson’s theory – than from the distribution of the profits resulting from the collective action itself.
It is always the same old problem mentioned by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic (Book 2, 360 b-c) whether compliance with the laws is intimately connected with the unavoidability of sanctions.
If sometimes we can avoid being subjected to the “hard yoke of the law”, it becomes also rational to operate as if the rules do not exist, as a free rider, if we consider that the benefit of the isolated action is much greater than the loss incurred in implementing the law.
In any case, the sanctions put in place by the United States on the DPRK have indeed increased the North Korean cost of any unlawful procurement of nuclear technologies abroad, but have not made it impossible.
This is because, at first, it is possible also for North Korea to act at the level of international law, for another very important reason: China’s non-cooperation.
Obviously China has no intention of negatively affecting its equilibriums with North Korea.
For China the DPRK is a future – albeit full – contributor to its economic expansion towards the West, with the Belt and Road Initiative, and China has no intention of destabilizing a region which would create unimaginable demographic, security, economic and strategic dangers for it.
North Korea is indeed a strategic “belt” for the defence against the “foreign dogs” of South-Western Chinese borders, as well as an unavoidable axis for the protection of its routes in the South China Sea.
Moreover China does not fear the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal since it knows all too well it could respond immediately and decisively to any possible attack from the North Korean territory.
Hence, with a view to persuading China, we need to shift from an old sanction regime to broader negotiations – hence to a partial recognition of a North Korean strategic and economic status in the Asian regional system and in relation to Japan (and Taiwan, too).
Moreover while, even within the 2003-2009 Six Party Talks between the DPRK, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, sanctions had not the opportunity of creating a diplomatic thread in the short- medium term, the sanction system becomes ineffective and useless, since North Korea simply regards its existence as a cost, and the implicit threat inherent in sanctions loses its effectiveness.
If you can never know how to check the effects of negotiations, you might as well not hold them.
In order to start talking effectively with North Korea, we have to explicitly clarify – and hence we must, at first, really convince North Korea – that no one is interested in a regime change in the DPRK.
At a later stage, after a series of confidence-building operations, we must prevent North Korea from always using – as happened so far – the heaviest card in each strategic and negotiating sector.
The geopolitical rodomontade and vainglorious boast can be rational today, but it would become self-destructive and self-defeating for North Korea in the future.
Therefore we must ensure that a new regional security climate enables the DPRK’s leaders to implement a less muscular foreign policy.
We must not call for North Korea’s complete denuclearization, but we must consider in parallel North Korea’s non-conventional arsenal and China’s deterrence and the North Korean regime’s opening to global economy in positive terms.
Always with the Russian mediation and brokerage.
If all this does not happen, being a free rider will become a rational choice for the DPRK.
Giancarlo Elia Valori (@GEliaValori)
Honorable of the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France