Motives behind North Korea’s plan to launch a "satellite"

by Keisuke Yoshihara, Staff Writer

On March 17, the Chugoku Shimbun spoke with Yuji Fukuhara, 38, an associate professor in the North East Asia Research Center at the University of Shimane, about the motives behind North Korea’s plan to launch a “commercial satellite” in early April. Prof. Fukuhara, who specializes in regional studies on the Korean Peninsula, warned, “North Korea is planning this launch to preserve its current regime. If Japan takes this occasion to build up its military strength, it would destabilize security in Northeast Asia.”

A show of military might to maintain its regime

Why is North Korea planning to launch a satellite now?
North Korea attaches the highest importance to maintaining its regime. In a speech delivered by Kim Jong Il in 1996, he analyzed the reason for the collapse of socialism in various countries, saying, “The communist parties of those nations deserted their cause and lost control of their armed forces.” This statement explains why North Korea is obsessed with military power.

As there has been talk of the health problems of Kim Jong Il, the nation aims to show off its military might and present itself as a “powerful nation” for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 2012. Also, with younger delegates elected on March 8 to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the equivalent of the Diet in Japan, North Korea also intends to tighten its grip on these delegates.

What is the purpose of North Korea’s satellite launch plan in the international arena?
Normally, the international community pays little attention to a small nation. But North Korea holds hopes of negotiating with the U.S., a superpower, and seeks to maintain its regime by declaring the missile launch and its possession of nuclear weapons. With regard to the launch, North Korea may be eyeing the possibility of obtaining a promise for food assistance in return for canceling the plan.

When suspicions of North Korea’s nuclear development were raised in 2002, senior officials in the Japanese government made a series of statements about Japan and nuclear arms. What impact will the launch plan have on Japan this time?
In Japan, discussion involving the missile defense system has suddenly intensified. If Japan uses this occasion to build up its military strength, it would invite China’s distrust, leading, in the end, to the destabilization of Northeast Asia.

In my opinion, North Korea does not intend to use a missile or a nuclear weapon. It is unwise to overreact to the satellite launch plan, as North Korea’s sole aim is to preserve its regime.

It appears that the Japanese government will prepare to intercept the “commercial satellite.” What reaction do you expect from North Korea?
North Korea has said that it would regard an interception of its satellite as an act of war. But an attempt to shoot down the satellite, in effect, would not invite a war, because North Korea fully understands the gap between its own military power and that of Japan. It is highly likely, though, that the nation would take some kind of military action such as test-firing a missile targeted at South Korea or launching a second commercial satellite. The interception would also surely influence the abduction issue and jeopardize the ongoing efforts that have been made to this point, including the six-party talks and the Pyongyang Declaration aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea.

(Originally published on March 18, 2009)