Although the move follows decades of broken promises by the reclusive North Korean government, it surprised leaders in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul because of the progress in recent weeks after years of stalled talks. The United States was finalizing details for 240,000 metric tons of food North Korea had desperately sought for more than a year.
The deal was also seen as a tentative first step toward better relations with new leader Kim Jong Eun and, possibly, toward a resumption of long-stalled multilateral talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.
North Korea described the launch as both scientific and celebratory, and said it would take place between April 12 and 16 to mark the centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. The North, which has signed an international space treaty, argues that it has every right to launch satellites for peaceful purposes. In a statement carried by its state-run news agency, the government promised “maximum transparency” and said the launch would encourage the “building of a thriving nation.”
But U.S. and South Korean officials have characterized North Korea’s satellite program as a cover for long-range missile tests, because similar technology is used to launch both. The key difference is a matter of payload: Satellites are designed for communication and observation; missiles are for destruction.
After a similar purported satellite launch in April 2009, the United Nations tightened sanctions against the North, adding a measure to ban Pyongyang from any future launches using “ballistic missile technology.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a launch would “pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.”
North Korea has refined its ability to launch but has been flummoxed by the sophistication required for the survivability and accuracy of long-distance projectiles. “What they’re trying to do is perfect their reentry heat shield for a ballistic missile,” said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs who is now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Although the Obama administration has been reluctant to link food aid to negotiations on North Korea’s missile program, North Korean leaders see the two as inexorably connected, U.S. officials say. For that reason, the food deal would probably die if Pyongyang goes ahead with the launch.