Map showing the trajectory of North Korea's upcoming satellite launch. From:Reuters
North Korea is preparing to launch a rocket bearing a satellite into space, a move that, if successful, would get it into the exclusive club of nations that operate satellites. Yet, unlike other space-faring nations, North Korea is unique: a nuclear-armed hermit country, possibly the world's most reclusive, ruled by a dynasty, where famines are routine.
That combination of factors has the world holding its breath as the North Koreans prepare to launch a rocket that they say is peaceful and the U.S. says is really a ballistic missile.
North Korea experts say the regime led by the young and still untested Kim Jong-un is doing something it has done before.
According to Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow and expert on North Korea and non-proliferation at the Brookings Institution, there are similarities to past events: "The impending satellite launch bears immediate comparison to the events in 2006 and 2009, when Pyongyang undertook its first two nuclear tests."
On both occasions, wrote Pollack in an analysis, "the nuclear tests were preceded by rocket launches, with the latter justified as a satellite launch." (Neither attempt to put a satellite in orbit was successful.)
South Korean news service Yonhap was first to release information earlier this week about North Korea's preparations for possibly a third nuclear test. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally named, is believed to have collected enough material to build six to eight Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs.
Whether or not the North Koreans test another nuclear device remains to be seen, according to Pollack. North Korea could use U.S. reactions to the launch to justify a nuclear test, but "if North Koreans need an excuse, they'll invent one."
Malnourished But Defiant
North Korea has said the launch, scheduled to happen between Thursday and the following Monday, is nothing more than a peaceful civilian operation meant to collect information on the weather.
The satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3 or "Bright Star" will be greatly helpful "to the study of weather forecasts needed for agriculture and other economic fields," said KCNA, North Korea's official news agency, in a statement to foreign journalists.
The satellite may give some much-needed assistance to the country's agricultural sector.
Crippling famines afflicted North Korea in the 1990s, and were especially severe in 1997. As the country entered the 21st century, conditions improved, but nutrition remains a serious issue.
Readying for a visit to the country in April 2011 with an international delegation, including the former head of the World Health Organization, ex-U.S. president Jimmy Carter said that "a third of the children are malnourished and stunted in their growth because of deprivation of adequate food supplies."
North Korea depends heavily on China for food, as well as fuel, and increasingly machinery and economic investment. But Beijing has been hesitant to push hard for North Korea to moderate its behavior.
China's Hands Tied?
Washington has long applied pressure on China to restrain North Korea.
Yet, analysts in the U.S. continue to argue over what level of influence China really has over the North Korean regime, and whether the DPRK really listens to its larger neighbor at all. Debate also continues on the nature of China's relationship with North Korea.
A sense of comradeship over the sacrifices made in the 1950s Korean War, close political relations between leaders of both ruling parties, and Beijing's concern about a flood of refugees in the event of instability in the North all work to keep China from taking a harder line.
In addition, 2012 is a year steeped in symbolism and important political changes for the North.
April 15 is the centennial of DPRK founder Kim Il-Sung's birthday. The country's young and still largely unproven leader may attempt to compensate for his inexperience with bluster. April 25 is also the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military, today the fourth-largest military in the world by active personnel, with more than 1.1 million soldiers.
Western analysts have noted on various occasions that these factors could combine to make this year a particularly important and possibly tumultuous time on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea's relationship with its neighbors and with the U.S. has seen many ups and downs through the decades. The North has never signed a peace treaty with the South after the armistice of 1953.
Periods of warmer relations, coinciding with talks and agreements on economic assistance, are interspersed with accusations and even openly hostile acts by the North, such as the 2010 shelling of a South Korean island.
On more than one occasion, the Kim regime has threatened to reduce Seoul, only 35 miles (50 km) from the demilitarized zone dividing North from South, and within range of thousands of Northern artillery pieces, into a "sea of fire."
This occasion has been no different, as the North has promised retaliation and "merciless punishment" for any actions to intercept or shoot down its rocket.
The resolve of the North Koreans should not be underestimated, warned Pollack. It would be, he wrote, a "profound misjudgment to assume that it is unprepared to yet again act in defiance of the outside world."
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