15.12.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea launches a satellite, causing an escalation in tensions Part Two: Reactions by South Korea and the international community to the DPRK’s successful launch of a satellite

On December 1, 2023, the KCNA reported that the DPRK had launched its first military reconnaissance satellite, Malligyong-1, into low Earth orbit, and that the adjustment procedure had been completed. And on December 2, the Satellite Operations Office, which will act as an autonomous military intelligence agency, began to perform its tasks. The information received by the new Office will be reported to the relevant executive department of the Central Military Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and then to the key units responsible for military containment and the Army’s General Intelligence Department.

The fact that the satellite did not fall to Earth had relatively little effect on the discussions concerning its capabilities or how much foreign aid contributed to the launch, about which we will write separately, and this article will be devoted to how the world reacted to the launch and what measures the US has tried to take in response.

In general, the reaction was much as anticipated. The US, Japan and South Korea, and also UN Secretary General António Guterres, all condemned the satellite launch as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in South East Asia. The same charge was repeated in almost all the official reactions to the launch.

The US strongly condemned the launch almost immediately. The White House National Security Council said that the use of ballistic missile technology constitutes a flagrant violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The use of technology that is directly linked to North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile development program is destabilizing the security situation, both in the region and beyond. Calling on the world community to condemn Pyongyang’s actions, the White House emphasized that the possibilities for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean problems have not yet been exhausted. Accordingly, North Korea should cease its provocative actions and instead choose peaceful engagement with the global community.

Senior diplomats from the G7 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan) also condemned the launch “in the strongest possible terms,” saying it posed a “grave” threat to peace in the region and beyond. “This action poses a grave threat to the peace and stability of the region and beyond… Any launch using ballistic missile technology, even if it is characterized as a military reconnaissance satellite, constitutes a clear, flagrant violation of relevant UN Security Council Resolutions.” In addition, the Ministers called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs, stressing that the North “cannot and will never” have the status of a nuclear-weapon state under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and that North Korea’s reckless actions must be met with a swift, unified and decisive international response, especially by the UNSC, and in passing, reiterated their condemnation of arms transfers from North Korea to Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was particularly vocal in his condemnation of North Korea’s launch of a military satellite using ballistic missile technology. “This raises tensions and poses a serious risk to regional and international security. North Korea must stop its reckless behavior, abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and engage in diplomacy in good-faith.”

The rival parties in the Republic of Korea both condemned the launch, with the main opposition Democratic Party also criticizing the government’s actions, stating that “it is necessary to come up with effective control measures against strategic weapons provocations from the North. But this should not lead to new security problems or risk sacrificing the safety of people on the Korean Peninsula.”

In an editorial, the conservative South Korean newspaper Korea JoongAng Daily claimed that the launch, regardless of whether the satellite operates successfully, is in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. Therefore, “Seoul must do its best to launch its first military reconnaissance satellite on November 30 in the United States, given the urgency to independently detect any suspicious movements by the North Korean military. At the same time, the government must maintain deterrence against the North through the deployment of US strategic assets such as F-22 stealth fighters and nuclear-powered submarines… We must sternly deal with North Korea if it resorts to a military provocation again.”

China’s position is well illustrated by a news report broadcast by Phoenix TV: “On November 22, the DPRK authorities announced that the previous day a military reconnaissance satellite had been successfully launched into orbit…

Needless to say, the above threats have their roots in the fundamental unresolved conflict between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, the strong military pressure on the DPRK by the Republic of Korea and the US, and the fundamental contradictions and lack of trust between the US and the DPRK.

China, certainly, could possibly play a positive role in the present situation, but China is not the source of the problem or a party to the conflict. Therefore, the key to breaking the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula lies in cooperation between the US and the DPRK.”

As for the Russian Federation, on November 22, 2023 Maria Zakharova, official spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, made the following comments:

“On November 21, North Korea carried out a pre-announced satellite launch. As we see, all this has prompted a painful response from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. As a so-called retaliatory measure, the government of the Republic of Korea decided to partially suspend the inter-Korean military agreement of 2018, which plays a crucial part in maintaining stability and preventing armed incidents next to the military demarcation line, which could escalate into a large-scale conflict.

Such steps from South Korea cannot but cause disappointment. The escalating tensions around the peninsula are a direct consequence of the aggressive military activity of the United States and its allies that conduct military drills almost non-stop and pump weapons into the subregion.

As far as Russia is concerned, our country stands for the entire set of problems of the Korean Peninsula being resolved peacefully with purely political and diplomatic tools, without any external pressure and without blackmail.”

Russian experts have tended to agree. For example, Aleksandr Zhebin, leading research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, considers that Pyongyang is exercising its right to self-defense.

This was followed by another attempt on the part of the international community to demonize Pyongyang’s actions. On November 27, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held in New York to discuss the launch. It was initiated by eight countries – the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Albania, Ecuador, Malta and the United Arab Emirates.

At the beginning of the meeting, Khaled Khiari, Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, stated that North Korea’s rocket launch poses a “serious’ risk to international civil aviation and maritime traffic.”

The risk was caused by the fact that although North Korea sent notification of the launch to the Japanese Coast Guard, it did not send any notification to the International Maritime Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization or the International Telecommunications Union. Khaled Khiari recalled Secretary-General António Guterres’ condemnation of the launch, noting that while sovereign states have “the right to benefit from peaceful space activities,” UNSC resolutions “explicitly” prohibit the DPRK from conducting any launches using ballistic missile technology.

North Korea’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Kim Song, defended the missile launch as an exercise of the North’s “sovereign” right, accusing the UNSC of repeating its “abnormal and absurd” practices of focusing only on satellite launches by North Korea. Denouncing the calling of the Security Council meeting as a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of his country and a serious interference in its internal affairs, Kim Song insisted that the purpose of the launch was “to get a clear picture of the dire military moves of the US and its followers so that we could be fully prepared for them, as the aggressive nature of these moves is becoming more and more obvious day by day… This is a legal and justified exercise of the right to self defense.” Kim Song added that the USA is threatening the DPRK with nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang has the right to develop, test, manufacture and possess weapon systems equivalent to those that the United States already possesses. Kim even posed a question to those in attendance: “Currently more than 5,000 satellites are orbiting the Earth, so why are you only discussing the satellite launched by North Korea?”

Hwang Joon-kook, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, responded that Pyongyang’s behavior is no longer a regional issue but an issue of global concern, and added that Pyongyang is moving beyond just violating UNSC resolutions to breaches that “now almost mock” council decisions, noting that to commemorate the test launch of the Hwasong-17 ICBM on November 18 last year, the DPRK had declared that date would henceforth be celebrated as Missile Industry Day. “I cannot find any other country in the world which celebrates in the calendar its illegal activity explicitly banned by the UNSC,” he added.

Geng Shuang, China’s deputy representative to the UN, appeared to defend North Korea’s position, and said that if North Korea constantly feels threatened, its “legitimate” security concerns remain unresolved. He added that a “favorable” environment is “indispensable” for the resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue.

Anna Evstigneeva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, stressed that Russia was concerned about the rapidly unfolding new round of escalation on the Korean peninsula. “Over the past few months, we have heard regular alarmist signals from Washington and its allies in the region about the DPRK building up a ballistic program to pose threats to their national security. The US delegation would use every opportunity to convene UNSC meetings in order to portray itself almost as a victim of a situation that they allege was created solely by Pyongyang.”

Anna Evstigneeva added that it was necessary to look at the current state of affairs in the region as a whole. Back in March, the bellicose maneuvers by the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, which were conducted in the immediate vicinity of the DPRK’s borders “assumed a striking scale” and that so far this year, the allies have already conducted six joint exercises with the direct participation of US “strategic assets.” “I look forward to hearing from the United States delegation to what extent these actions are consistent with the requirement of paragraph 28 of UNSC resolution 2397 that calls to work to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and beyond.”

The Russian representative added that “Russia does not support steps by either side that run counter to the objectives of establishing long-term peace in the region” and that she therefore wished to draw attention to Seoul’s plans to launch its first reconnaissance satellite from the US Vandenberg Base, and the signals from Tokyo and Seoul, about “enhanced cooperation” with Washington in the nuclear area, which could well be interpreted as an assumption of the possibility of deploying US nuclear weapons on their territory and developing such weapons of their own. “By the way, today the UN Secretariat failed once again to give a proper assessment to these provocative steps.” Given this situation, it does not come as a surprise that Pyongyang, which the most powerful nuclear power is trying to “drive into a corner,” seeks to take the best possible measures in the interests of self-defense.

Anna Evstigneeva stressed that Russia consistently stands for the entire set of problems of the Korean Peninsula being resolved peacefully with purely political and diplomatic tools, without any external pressure and without blackmail. The Russian-Chinese draft political and humanitarian resolution of the UN Security Council is still on the table, and could become a truly constructive contribution by the Security Council to resolving the current complex situation on the Korean peninsula.

As a result of the objections of China and Russia, the UN Security Council was unable to adopt any documents. And the initiating countries limited themselves to a joint statement, which, however, was just a lot of hot air.  As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations noted, two permanent members of the UN Security Council were unwilling to condemn the dangerous launch: “How many more times must we gather for briefings like this before the Russian Federation and China join us in demanding the DPRK abandon its weapons-of-mass-destruction and ballistic missile programs?”

North Korea’s diplomatic response came in several stages. On November 27, Kim Son Gyong, the DPRK’s Deputy Foreign Minister for International Organizations, issued a press statement on the outcome of the UNSC discussion and the 10-nation Joint Statement issued by the US and its satellites. In his view, the Joint Statement clearly shows “the reason why the UN Security Council fails to fulfill its important duty to ensure global peace and security and get rid of its malfunction.”

The US and its satellites insist that the DPRK is not entitled to exercise the legitimate right to engage in space exploration, which can be enjoyed by all UN member-states. Their brigandish insistence is not simply an issue of discrimination and double standards: if a spy satellite launched into space becomes a “threat” to the states that signed the “Joint Statement,” then are the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, strategic nuclear submarines and nuclear strategic bombers deployed by the US on the DPRK’s very doorstep “envoys of friendship and peace” or are they threatening the DPRK?

The DPRK will therefore “squarely, unhesitatingly and scrupulously exercise its sovereign rights including to launch satellites. This will contribute to the establishment of a just and equal new international order. If the US and its vassal forces again seek to violate the sovereignty of the DPRK under the pretext of an utterly unlawful “resolution” of the UNSC, they will be held wholly accountable for any consequences that may result.”

On November 29, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, issued a press statement expressing regret that “the UNSC, which should strictly respect the purpose and principles of the UN Charter, is turning into a lawless forum in which the sovereignty of independent states is flagrantly violated, extreme double standards are brazenly applied and injustice and violence reign because of the US and some of its satellites.”

Kim Yo-jong pointed out that the USA’s assurances that it is ready for dialog are contradicted by its military activities in the region, and stated that in the current situation “the consistent stand of the DPRK against the US is that the former should be ready for both dialogue and confrontation.” She added that “the sovereignty of an independent state can never be a matter for negotiations, and therefore, the DPRK will never sit face to face with the US for that purpose.”

The discussions in the UN Security Council were followed by a new wave of unilateral sanctions. On November 30, 2023, in response to Pyongyang’s launch of its spy satellite, the US imposed sanctions against “a North Korean cyberespionage group and eight foreign-based agents of the reclusive regime.” The hackers were members of the infamous KIMSUKY group, although the present author has very real doubts about whether that group has links with North Korea.

Among the sanctioned individuals were Kang Kyong Il and Ri Sung Il, both are Iran-based representatives of Green Pine, the organization named by the US and UN as responsible for about half of North Korea’s exports of arms and related materiel. According to the US Department of Defense, Green Pine specializes in the production of naval warships and weapons and has provided technical assistance and weapons to Iranian defense-related firms.

Following this, in response to Pyongyang’s launch of its military reconnaissance satellite on December 1, the Republic of Korea imposed unilateral sanctions on eleven North Korean individuals involved in satellite and ballistic missile development. According to the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Ministry, the sanctions list includes employees of North Korea’s National Aerospace Technology Administration, the Ryongsong and Taesong engineering plants, the North Korean Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Mechanical Engineering and the North Korean Embassy in Russia. They are accused of participating in research and development related to ballistic missiles and their operation. This is the 13th package of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang since the Yun Seok-yol administration came to power last May. In this period, a total of 53 individuals and 75 legal entities were sanctioned. Seoul’s announcement coincided with the imposition of a series of sanctions against North Korea by the US, Japan and Australia.

In response, on December 2, a DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a press statement entitled “It is the sovereign right of the DPRK to firmly defend the state’s sovereignty, security and interests from hostile forces’ encroachment,” in which he criticized the newly imposed sanctions package, which “is nothing but a ‘sedative’ to calm down the growing uneasiness and impatience over the ever-declining US-led hegemonic order, and cannot have any effective effect on the DPRK’s exercise of sovereign right at present and in the future,” and warned of retaliatory measures against “individuals, institutions and organizations of the US and its vassal forces involved in the drawing and execution of the sanction policy toward the DPRK.” Regardless of what others say, the DPRK will “proudly and perfectly exercise its sovereign right including satellite launches and make every possible effort to defend the sovereignty, security and interests of the state and ensure peace and security of the Korean Peninsula and the region from all threats and obstructions from outside.”

But the most important negative consequence of the satellite launch was the termination of the Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA). In general, the present author was expecting this development, and indeed, as anticipated, as a “response to provocations” the ROK partially suspended the CMA, after which, on November 23, the DPRK stated that it did not consider itself bound by any part of this document. After this, the remilitarization of the border region began, and the present author will discuss this in more detail in his next article.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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