The United States and the rest of the world were on "North Korea missile watch" in mid-April as they waited to see if the communist autocracy would live up to its announcement that it would launch a satellite into Earth orbit sometime between April 12 and April 16. A missile launch would violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 and indicate that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ignoring the international community, much as his father Kim Jong Il did.
As intelligence photos indicated that North Koreans were indeed assembling a missile on a launch pad, U.S. officials were not sure if it was designed to actually boost an object into orbit, or simply prove to be another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test firing.
Tied to the potential launch were questions about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and whether it had to capability of attaching a nuclear warhead to an ICBM.
At a nuclear power summit in South Korea in March 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama encouraged Kim Jong Un -- who assumed leadership of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea's official name) when his father died in December 2011 -- to refrain from continued nuclear or missile testing.
Since 1993, the United States and the international community have tried to ensure a "denuclearized" Korean Peninsula, first through the "Agreed Framework" for denuclearization (1993-2002), then a series of intermittent Six-Party Talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. Those talks proceeded in fits and starts between 2003 and 2009.
Throughout those years, North Korea periodically bolted from the negotiating table alleging what it called "hostile policy" from the U.S. The United States had found evidence in 2002 that North Korea was pursuing an undisclosed uranium enrichment program, and, of course President George W. Bush had lumped North Korea among the "Axis of Evil" with Iraq and Iran.
In 2005 Kim Jong Il dramatically halted talks and restarted missile tests which he had stopped in 1999. North Korea also exploded two nuclear weapons, one in 2006, another in 2009. Also in 2009, North Korea restarted missile testing.
The U.S. and China were trying to restart the Six-Party Talks when Kim Jong Il died.
Stern Words From The U.S.
The United States has offered North Korea food aid for its millions of undernourished people if it will avoid further nuclear or missile testing. However, President Obama has made it clear that will not happen if the proposed April missile launch proceeds.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on April 10 that, "it's impossible to imagine that we would be able to follow through with . . . the nutritional assistance that we had planned on providing, given what would be a flagrant violation of . . . North Korea's basic international obligations."
Carney said a day earlier that any North Korean rocket launch would indicate that North Korea has, "at the leadership level," decided to ignore the international community. Carney said it also indicates that Kim Jong Un has decided to ignore the "extreme poverty and deprivation" that North Koreans suffer from "because of the nature of the system that they live under and the isolation that they've brought on themselves."
North Korean officials have said the intended launch is designed to put a weather satellite in orbit. They have said that such a launch does not violate any international obligations, as every nation has the right to place peaceful satellites in orbit.
The potential launch is reminiscent of the early days of the "Space Race" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When Soviets placed the Sputnik satellite in orbit in 1957, it seemed to verify to Americans that the U.S.S.R. had the power to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the U.S.