North Korea missile test?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

MARCO WERMAN: In Northeast Asia, there's another foreign policy challenge looming. North Korea's announced it will send up a communications satellite during the first week of April. It has warned ships and planes to stay away from parts of the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. The World's Matthew Bell reports Washington is suspicious.

MATTHEW BELL: This wouldn't be the first North Korean attempt to put a satellite into orbit. The politically isolated and economically destitute nation tried to send a metal sphere into space in 1998. The device was supposed to broadcast revolutionary songs praising the North Korean leadership. But the rocket carrying it flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. And the satellite was never heard from. The North Koreans were criticized at the time for not issuing standard launch warnings to international shipping and aviation authorities. Jack Pritchard is President of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

JACK PRITCHARD: What the North Koreans are doing now is crossing their t's and dotting their i's and trying to ensure that there is no obvious issue for which the international community can take up with North Korea at a post-satellite launch.

BELL: But the United Nations is taking issue already. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said today that he's concerned about the launch, whether it turns out to be a satellite or a long-range missile test.

BAN-KI MOON: This will threaten the peace and stability in the region. I hope they will abide by the relevant Security Council resolution.

BELL: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been clear about Washington's view.

CLINTON: We believe that the missile launch for whatever purpose it is stated to be aimed at is in violation of the Security Council resolution.

BELL: UN Resolution 1718 was passed after North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006. It said North Korea should refrain from conducting further nuclear or ballistic missile tests, and it should abandon both programs. But it's not clear the other members of the Security Council would conclude that a satellite launch is a clear violation. Russia's envoy to the North Korean nuclear talks was quoted today saying just that. So would the test be a threat to the United States or North Korea's neighbors? Keep in mind this would be the third time North Korea has tried to launch a long-range rocket. And the first two were failures. Scott Bruce is with the Nautilus Institute. It's a California-based think tank focused on energy and security issues in Northeast Asia. Bruce points out that it took the US dozens of tests to perfect its missile program.

SCOTT BRUCE: So if the goal there is perfect their missile system, North Korea is doing a very poor job. However, if their goal is prioritize themselves higher on President Obama's to-do list, if there goal is to send a very clear warning to South Korea and their goal is for domestic purposes to demonstrate to their people that they're able to bring in high value technology that the outside world doesn't want them to have, then they're accomplishing that very effectively with this missile test.

BELL: Or, this could have something to do with the long-running game of one-upsmanship North Korea is playing with its rival in South Korea. Seoul is planning its own satellite launch later this year. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.