What was the purpose of the launch?
Many are suspicious of Pyongyang’s motives, claiming the launch of such a long range missile by North Korea is to actually test long range ballistic missile (LRBM) technology. The purpose of a satellite launch vehicle (SLV) is to lift a payload to a required distance and speed above the Earth to remain in orbit, unlike the objective of a ballistic missile which is to deliver a payload, usually a warhead, to a defined location on the Earth. The launch rocket technology involved in an SLV is very similar to a ballistic missile, with the only differences being the angle and speed of launch. However, the technologies diverge significantly once the payload has separated from the rocket. A long range or intercontinental ballistic missile will reach sub-orbital altitude from where the payload needs to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and fly to its predefined destination.
The North Koreans may have had a number of objectives for the launch. The primary objective was probably to prove an ability to launch a payload successfully to an orbital altitude, that would satisfy both SLV and LRBM requirements, and successfully deploying an orbiting satellite. The significant element missing is the testing of a re-entry vehicle.
Timing of the launch
The timing of the launch, close on the heels of the January 16 nuclear test, raises the possibility that the two events share a common technical driver. If the North Koreans are developing long range ballistic missiles, with an aim to threaten the United States, then an improved smaller and lighter nuclear warhead may be the objective, and the rocket launched may be the delivery system or part of. As it stands, the Unha-3/Kwanymyongsong SLV is poorly-suited to delivering a nuclear weapon – but may function as a testbed for stages or systems intended for use in an ICBM.
The DPRK knows that it is going to be subjected to heavy criticism and probable further sanctions whenever it conducts a nuclear or missile test. Conducting the two events close together means that Pyongyang suffers only one response from the UN Security Council. In addition, the launch obviously is an attempt to send a message to its critics, especially the United States, that Pyongyang possesses the technology and means to defend itself and threaten its adversaries if necessary.
The United Nations Security Council, in its response to the launch, restated its intent to develop significant measures in response to the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK on January 6, 2016. It is not known what measures are being considered, nor is it clear that any measures politically agreeable to all Security Council members will be especially effective in constraining the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes.
An escalation in sanctions to include trade embargoes is certain to be met with resistance from China and probably Russia – neighbours of the DPRK who have the most to lose in the event of a state collapse. Although Pyongyang has some export markets including minerals and textiles, hitting such trade could have significant repercussions on humanitarian aspects of the DPRK.
Perhaps the main target should be the money that Pyongyang has raised to fund UN-prohibited programmes, along with the entities and individuals that procure for these efforts. The two dozen or so people and companies so far listed by the Security Council must fall far short of the real picture of North Korea’s procurement web.
It appears that North Korea has successfully launched a rocket, but it is unclear if it successfully placed a satellite into stable orbit. But the launch reiterates to the world that current UN Resolutions and the various sanctions imposed on them have not constrained the DPRK’s ability to develop nuclear, missile and SLV technology to the extent that it would desire. North Korea knows it will face heavy criticism for any nuclear or long range missile test; therefore conducting both events close to each other means it receives the consequences in one hit. But these activities also send a message to the international community that Pyongyang feels it can do what it likes with impunity, and that the country has the technology to defend itself and threaten its adversaries, albeit with limited capabilities. If the international community really wants to impact on the DPRK's programmes then it needs emphasis on identifying North Korea’s foreign financial support, and the wider procurement networks that it uses to support its illicit programs.