North Korea’s rocket launch: How much, why now, and what now?

December 12, 2012

North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into orbit on Wednesday, and though it didn't carry a warhead, it used technology that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea's ballistic missile program.

The launch was immediately heralded as a triumph for the North Korean people on the country's state-controlled media channels.

“At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th anniversary of President Kim Il Sung,” the Korean Central News Agency said in a statement.

Here's a look at the cost, reasons for and China's reaction to the launch:

How much did it cost? 

It's true that launching a satellite into space is somewhat of a waste of money for one of the world's poorest countries, but the North Korean government's rocket program is geared toward bolstering its reputation as a military power -- both for its own citizens and for its foreign adversaries -- rather than improving economic conditions.

South Korea's government estimates that the two rocket launches -- Wednesday's and the failed one in April -- added up to $600 million. Pyongyang spent an estimated $1.3 billion total on its rocket program this year, which the South Korean government says is enough to buy 4.6 million tons of corn. The government has also invested as much as $3.2 billion in nuclear weapons and missile development over the years, equivalent to three years’ supply of food for North Korea’s citizens, another South Korean official said.

The actual cost might have been lower, however, because North Korean workers make very little -- usually about $50 to $100 per month.

Why now?

Analysts initially thought the launch could be delayed for 10 days or more because of "technical issues," so the success of the launch came as a bit of a surprise. In April, a similar attempt failed miserably.

Why did it happen now?

Writing in CNN, Benjamin Habib, a politics lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, offers three theories:

1) A plea for attention: Between changes in leadership in China, South Korea and North Korea itself, a "December rocket launch sends a strong signal from Pyongyang to its regional interlocutors to ensure that North Korea does not get overlooked amid the bureaucratic maelstrom that usually follows changes in government."

2) Propaganda: "A successful rocket launch would also represent a sterling commemoration of the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death on December 17, much as the unsuccessful April launch was intended for propaganda purposes as a celebration of Kim Il Sung's centenary."

3) Upping the ante with its neighbors: "In the past year South Korea has announced its deployment of cruise missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers, capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea, along with tactical ballistic missiles and drones with a range of 300 kilometers. It's no stretch to interpret North Korea's rocket launch in terms of a classic arms race, as a missile test in response to its adversary's upgraded missile systems."

How did China react?

China is a rare North Korea ally, but even they expressed "regret" over the launch.

“We express regret at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s launch in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, using North Korea’s formal name.

This is the first major foreign-policy issue that newly chosen Chinese leader Xi Jinping has faced, but some China experts say China's North Korea policy won't change much under Xi's leadership unless Kim's regime delves further into its missile program, such as developing nuclear-armed missiles.

However, the launch could further strain relations between China and North Korea, which have been cooling recently.

“The relationship between China and North Korea seems fairly bad at the moment,” one western diplomat told the South China Morning Post. “North Korea seems not to pay any attention to China’s advice.”

Could North Korea threaten the United States with this technology?

Probably not yet. As The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported, most analysts think North Korea isn't capable of "miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount on a long-range missile."

Additionally, “if this is considered relatively successful, that also does not prove they have a reliable system that will work time after time,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

And North Korea's track record doesn't show that they could reliably reproduce the same launch and send a missile to a predictable distance.

"What [the latest test] doesn’t show is that they have any idea what the reliability is,” said David Wright, a missile and global security expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And that’s an issue if you’re talking about war capability. If you have a nuclear warhead, you don’t want to put a warhead on a missile that you have no idea how far it will go.”

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Max Fisher · December 12, 2012