North Korea Launch Legality

(CNN) -- Log on to the Korean Central News Agency's state-run website and you'll find a concise explanation of what North Korea's launch of an Unha-3 long-range missile is all about: It's not about the missile, it's about the satellite sitting on top of that missile.

"Kwangmyongsong-3, which is to be launched under the DPRK government's policy on space development for peaceful purposes, is an earth observation satellite for collecting data essential for the country's economic development," the agency says.

For the United States, and most other countries, it's very much about the missile. Missiles can be used innocuously to launch peaceful satellites -- and they can be used to deliver nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. As the National Security Council's Tommy Vietor quipped Wednesday: "North Korea doesn't need to spend this kind of money on a weather satellite. Go to weather.com."

"Even the North Koreans say 'Yes, it's a ballistic missile but we're using it to launch a satellite,'" North Korea expert John Park, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, tells CNN, "and so if you use that legalistic interpretation, that's acknowledgment right there."

And if North Korea is launching a long-range missile, regardless of the purpose, Park and other experts say, it's simple: "They are in violation" of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The U.N. resolutions began in July 2006. North Korea test-fired a series of missiles and the Security Council demanded it "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program, and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching."

The North Korean representative to the Security Council charged that "some countries" were trying to "misuse the Security Council for the despicable political aim to isolate and put pressure" on his country, and vowed the North would continue the launches to bolster its self-defense.

That autumn came Resolution 1718 after North Korea proclaimed that it had carried out a nuclear test. The Security Council demanded "that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile."

Three years later, after Pyonyang conducted another nuclear test, the Security Council passed yet another Resolution -- 1874. Another condemnation -- another demand: "that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology."

In February of this year, with the late Kim Jong Il's son, Kim John Un, filling his shoes, things were looking up. The North promised to freeze its nuclear activities, observe a moratorium on missile tests, and let international inspectors in. The U.S. would provide desperately-needed food aid in return.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tells CNN "During negotiations, the U.S. side made clear we'd consider a launch a violation."

That was "conveyed orally more than once, and it certainly is in our records," she says.

But the North Korean regime has a different take on that conversation, saying that the agreement did not include launching a satellite.

"As a result, the DPRK-U.S. agreement dated February 29 specified a moratorium on long-range missile launch, not "launch of long-range missile including satellite launch" or "launch with the use of ballistic missile technology," according to a North Korean statement published by the country's news agency.

"NK is playing the bigger game of universal rights," said John Park. "They've cited every nation's right to the peaceful use of space, which is permitted."

In 2009 the North even took steps to follow international rules on notifying other countries about the flight path of its missiles and where the debris would fall. They did it again for this coming launch.

This time the Koreans did something they've never done before, they invited international media, including CNN, and gave them a tour of the launch pad and related facilities, including the satellite. One senior administration official told CNN White House Correspondent Dan Lothian it was a "propaganda tour" and accused the international press of "buying into it."

It's a charade, NSC's Veitor said.

"Why they're using the press to pretend it's a satellite launch," Vietor mused.

"They're taking all of the prudent steps and the required steps to be a member in good standing and carry out this peaceful use of space" Park says, but because the 2006 missile tests were so destabilizing anything they do subsequently is prohibited.

North Korea, he says, has a "case of selective memory," citing its right to the peaceful use of space - but ignoring U.N. resolutions telling it to stop.


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