Negotiating Space with North Korea

Even though North Korea’s long-range missile turned out to be a dud, Pyongyang has nevertheless achieved its aim by getting the world’s attention. Governments around the world have rushed to condemn Pyongyang. Japan and the United States want to bring the full weight of the United Nations against the country. North Korea, meanwhile, has argued that it would consider comprehensive sanctions an act of war. It’s threatening a nuclear strike if attacked.

Though North Korea’s test moratorium was self-imposed and its launches broke no international agreements, the fireworks in East Asia are certainly provocative. Pyongyang has managed to infuriate even its closest ally, China.

Instead of ratcheting up the tension, the Bush administration should consider turning this crisis into an opportunity. It should do something radical in its simplicity. It should listen to North Korea.

Yes, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wants to get our attention. He wants direct talks with the United States. He wants a better deal at the negotiating table in exchange for his country’s nuclear program. But the rocket launch preparations should remind us that Kim wants something specific: a satellite. In 1998, when it launched its last rocket, Pyongyang claimed to be trying to put a satellite into orbit that would, among other things, broadcast propaganda songs praising its leadership. The launch failed, and the satellite never made it into orbit.

Since a satellite is considerably more benign than nuclear weapons or the missiles to deliver them, the Bush administration should consider making an offer. The United States will launch satellites for North Korea. This is not an original idea. In 2000, the US government put together a proposal to end North Korea’s missile program. Part of the proposal included the offer to launch satellites for North Korea. The offer was still on the table when the Bush administration took office. There was no follow-up.

North Korea wants a satellite for the same reasons as its neighbors. A robust satellite program points the way toward the world-class economy that North Korea hopes will rise, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of its current situation. Satellites offer a quantum leap in communications. And it’s a big business with good export potential. The satellite market has recently passed the $100 billion mark. Japan has a thriving satellite industry. The South Korean government is subsidizing the industry to break into the global top ten in the near future. China plans nine satellite launches this year. Who can blame North Korea for wanting in on the action?

Critics point out that North Korea’s satellite ambitions conceal military aims. Pyongyang could use its satellite to spy on other countries. It could use a satellite to help with targeting its weapons. But the United States, in helping get North Korea into space, could ensure that the program is strictly commercial. Also, a US-assisted launch could be traded for North Korea’s missile program, making the targeting question moot. Even a commercial satellite program might be a tough sell for the United States. The Bush administration has expressed little interest in helping North Korea revive its economy. Hard-liners in the administration believe that economic engagement amounts to a lifeline for the autocratic government.

To exit the impasse with North Korea, however, the United States has to focus on its essential goals — to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and eliminate its missile program. The only way to do this is to offer the country a way to become an economic power, rather than a nuclear power. And satellites can play a role in North Korea’s economic revival.

Those who dislike the idea of a North Korean satellite circling the globe should remember that the transmission of Pyongyang’s propaganda is certainly not the worst kind of proliferation. Let’s pay attention to North Korea’s fireworks now with a satellite counteroffer. It’s better than dealing with a genuine nuclear threat in the future.

This op-ed also appeared on July 7, 2006 in the International Herald Tribune.

John Feffer, author of “North Korea/South Korea,” is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the International Relations Center.