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North Korea and The Outer Space Treaty

On February 7, 2016, North Korea fired a rocket into outer space. Within minutes, the United States received news from North Korea’s media announcing it had in fact launched a satellite into orbit. Many nations expressed fear and concern believing the “satellite launch” acted as a cover for “developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear bomb.” 1. To this day, North Korea has continuously advertised its launching success with its “newly developed earth observation satellite, Kwangmyongsong-4.” 2. The alleged purpose of the satellite is to “monitor the weather and to map the location of natural resources and forests.” 3. However, many skeptics still consider North Korea’s program a pretext for nuclear bomb development.

Under a series of Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons or ballistic-missile technologies. United Nation’s Resolution 1718 expresses the UN’s “firm conviction that the international regime on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons should be maintained and recalling that [North Korea] cannot have the status of a nuclear-weapon state in accordance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” 4. This resolution stemmed from national security concerns related to threats sent by North Korea to South Korea, the United States, and other nations. North Korea is regarded as the “rogue” nation, and known for projecting itself as a powerful country through its violence and threats.

Disregarding any negative opinions, North Korea’s satellite launch does fall within the legal parameters of The Outer Space Treaty of 1967. 5. So long as the nation’s satellite purpose is true, launching a satellite into orbit to survey land is a peaceful action. Article III of the Treaty articulates, “Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space…in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.” 6. North Korea became a interested party to the Treaty in 2009, and therefore is liable to any and all legal ramifications if found in violation of any one article.

If, however, skeptics discover evidence demonstrating North Korea’s launch acted as a precursor for future nuclear launches, then the UN can find the nation in violation of the Treaty. Evidence of this could include identifying a nuclear missile within the satellite, missiles launched from any other outer space vehicle or, any action found not to progress the peaceful purposes of the Treaty. Unfortunately, a senior Defense Department official said it appeared that “the satellite was tumbling in orbit, and thus not able to carry out its Earth observation mission.” 7. Kwangmyongsong-4 “appears to be in orbit, but it hasn’t yet transmitted anything detectable.” 8. It’s apparent that transmission is key. If North Korea’s satellite isn’t transmitting, it “likely means it doesn’t work, and turns a space launch from a technological triumph into an expensive way to dump waste in orbit.” 9. If this result is true, then all that is apparent is North Korea’s failed attempt at launching a satellite.

It is possible the satellite is transmitting and just hasn’t been heard yet. At North Korea Tech, Martyn Williams writes, “So far, there have been no reports of transmissions from the satellite. We also don’t know what we’re listening for. In the past, North Korea claimed its satellites were broadcasting the Song of Kim II Sung and Song of Kim Jong and Morse code. This time we’re not sure. The only stated mission is earth observation.” 10. Time may eventually reveal evidence that exposes North Korea’s “true” mission, but until that time comes, the satellite launch is deemed a failure and harmless.

The skeptic’s theory behind North Korea’s satellite mission focuses on its launch process. The rogue nation recently tested a hydrogen bomb, and announced “spectacular success.” 11. Then weeks later, Korea launched it’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite for earth observational purposes. Taking these controversial events into account, why would North Korea risk international sanctions? Samuel Ramani’s answers, “to strengthen Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian grip on power, at a time when the regime has been losing its ability to reward loyal elites with revenues.” 12. Demonstrating North Korea’s power is why the nation is risking international sanctions. Advertising a successful launch or test unites the Korean people and strikes fear across the world. In essence, if North Korea launched their satellite, risking international sanctions, to create an image of fear and strength, then their true mission is a success, even if their land-surveying mission was a failure. The North Korean government may be truthful with their satellite-imaging goal, but the fear they have instilled across the globe has people worried in fear they are up to no good.


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