North Korea announced plans Friday to launch a satellite atop a long-range rocket next month, drawing condemnation from members of the international community who see the move as an about-face from the reclusive nation’s recent pledge to scale back its weapons program.
The move announced by the Korean Committee for Space Technology and carried by state media is also in defiance of Pyongyang’s U.N. obligations and calls into question a recently brokered agreement with the U.S. exchanging food aid for nuclear concessions.
The official KCNA news agency reported that North Korea will launch an earth observation satellite—the Kwangmyongsong-3—atop an Unha-3 rocket between April 12 and 16 to coincide with the celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
A spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said North Korea would abide by international regulations governing the launch of satellites for "peaceful" scientific purposes and that an orbit was chosen to avoid showering debris on neighboring nations.
The surprise move is seen as an effort by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—Kim Il Sung’s grandson—to solidify his position following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December.
Only weeks ago, North Korea said it would suspend long-range missile launches as a trade-off for the U.S. aid, but it now claims that satellite launches do not qualify as violations of the agreement and are merely part of a peaceful space exploration program.
Critics say the vehicle for the satellite could also be used to carry a nuclear warhead if refined through test launches.
The U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, which had held talks with North Korea aimed at ending its illicit nuclear program, weighed in on Pyongyang’s announcement, with most condemning the planned launch as a danger to stability in East Asia.
The U.S. State Department labeled North Korea’s move “highly provocative,” calling on Pyongyang to adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions which “clearly and unequivocally prohibit … launches that use ballistic missile technology.”
“Such a missile 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,” the statement said.
And South Korea’s foreign ministry expressed “serious concern,” calling the move a "grave provocation threatening the peace and security" on the Korean peninsula.
Japan urged Pyongyang to abandon the launch, calling it a violation of a U.N. resolution restricting the North's use of ballistic missile technology.
Russia, often seen as taking a more moderate stance on relations with North Korea, expressed serious concern over the launch plan and urged Pyongyang not to disrupt the process of returning to the six-party nuclear talks which had been suspended since 2008.
"We call on Pyongyang not to put itself in opposition to the international community, to refrain from actions that increase tension in the region and create additional complications for the relaunch of six-sided negotiations about the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula," Russia’s foreign ministry said.
But China’s reaction was more muted, with the foreign ministry saying only that it had “taken note” of the news and stressing the need to “maintain the peace and stability” of the region. Beijing is widely seen as having brokered the food aid deal between Pyongyang and Washington.
North Korea last attempted to launch a satellite in April 2009, also drawing global protests, but that exercise was widely seen as a failure, with the rocket having flown over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean without delivering its payload.
North Korea maintains that the satellite made it into space.
North Korea agreed last month to suspend uranium enrichment, place a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and allow back U.N. weapons inspectors in exchange for much-needed food aid.
The decision was a reversal from Pyongyang’s stance taken after the 2009 satellite launch attempt when the government declared that it would abandon six-party talks on offering the North aid and concessions in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Weeks following that announcement, North Korea tested its second nuclear device in three years. The U.N. responded by leveling tougher sanctions against the regime.
Experts believe any rocket launch in April would derail the food exchange agreement with the North.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.