South Korean and U.S. officials now believe that North Korea has set its sights since last year on test-firing a long-range missile on the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung on April 15, and that its pledge of a moratorium on missile launches in an agreement with Washington in February was a cynical ploy to extract aid.
The officials at first thought the announcement of what the North claims is a satellite launch was the result of pressure by hardliners in North Korea's military, who were opposed to the agreement with the U.S., but that theory does not stand up to close scrutiny.
◆ Months of Preparations
The main reason is that the rocket launch takes a lot of preparation. A diplomatic source in Washington said Wednesday, "North Korea seems to have set its sights on launching the rocket in December last year, before North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death."
A government official here said, "Looking at the way North Korea said it would allow IAEA inspectors to visit the Yongbyon nuclear facility, [which it promised in the February agreement with Washington], right after it announced the satellite launch, there is a strong chance that it has been planned for a long time."
The launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits Pyongyang from launching any intercontinental ballistic missile or using missile technology, as well as the agreement with the U.S. The Obama administration's special representative for North Korea, Glyn Davies, apparently warned North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan about this during the February meeting.
North Korea's behavior also suggests the launch was long and carefully planned. Unlike in 2009, when it test-fired a long-range missile toward Japanese waters that appeared to target the strategic U.S. base in Guam, it says it will launch the rocket toward the South Pacific, apparently to minimize protests from Washington. Pyongyang also informed the International Civil Aviation Organization of the coordinates of the places where the first and second stage of the rocket will fall, and said it would invite foreign representatives to observe the launch.
◆ N.Korea's Hopes
The regime is apparently pushing ahead with the launch because it believes testing a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload would be hugely effective in boosting its power at home and leverage abroad. The U.S. can be expected to threaten sanctions following the launch, but the North appears to be calculating that Washington will have no choice but to enter negotiations eventually. And if the launch succeeds, Pyongyang can show the world that it can hit targets in Hawaii and Alaska.
North Korea also seems to be aware that the U.S. will not give up its opportunity to check on the North's uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon. The U.S. has warned North Korea that the rocket launch would be a "grave provocation" but has yet to make any comments on the IAEA inspection.
But there are views in the U.S. that the North's plan could backfire. U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking re-election this year, and may have no choice but to take hawkish measures in order avoid being trounced on by Republicans.