09broad190If news reports coming from South Korea and echoed through the West are to be believed, North Korea is moving towards another attempt at launching a Taepo Dong – 2 IR/ICBM, ostensibly as a space launch vehicle (SLV).  This would be the third such attempt, with previous attempts in July 2006 and Sept 1998 ending in failure. (Note that the 1998 launch was with what is now considered to be a shorter range variant identified as a Taepo Dong -1).  Most of this is speculation, albeit likely informed speculation based on the gleanings of what few bits of information have fallen through the cracks in the intel world’s wall.  Such speculation – and the concern raised by the DPRK’s typical silence or disinformation campaign, would be alleviated were the DPRK to hew to the collection of five conventions governing the access to and use of outer space and celestial bodies, as acceded to or  ratified by major space-faring nations including the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, China, Indonesia, India and Israel.  Notable by their absence as well is the most recent member of the group of states able to place an object on orbit, Iran.  Given their respective histories of collaboration and lack of transparency to the outside world for their missile and WMD programs, one supposes this should not be surprising.  Unfortunately, it generates needless tension and promotes an atmosphere conducive to misinterpretation and over-reaction where it need not be present.

This need not be the case were the DPRK and Iran to accede to the Outer Space Treaty and the other international conventions regarding space access and use.  The five treaties and agreements constituting this convention on space use include:

These five treaties have established a series of legal precedence whose purpose, similar to those governing the Antarctic continent and the seas, seek to establish a set of rules and principles of behavior for the use of the commons of outer space by all nations and peoples. Specifically, they provide for non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, arms control (e.g., agreement not to place nuclear or other WMD on orbit or on celestial bodies like the Moon), the freedom of exploration, liability for damage caused by space objects, the safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, the notification and registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the exploitation of natural resources in outer space and the settlement of disputes.
Of particular concern and interest in the current case is that principle of “notification and registration of space activities” as established by the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.  Under that convention, member states are requested to place information on what they are placing into orbit in a public repository.  To date, the US, for example, has over 2005 objects listed – sample documents are here (including the first Vanguard satellite still on orbit) and here (includes Apollo 13) – the searchable database is available here .
All of this serves a couple of purposes.  One, with the information obtained, is to serve to hopefully de-conflict orbits and ensure there are no unintended collisions with subsequent consequence management efforts to mitigate debris. (Alas, as Low Earth Orbit is increasingly populated with active and inactive satellites and “launch debris” (the latter of which could consist of anything from retaining bolts to entire, defunct upper stages) the likelihood of “inadvertent encounters” like the recent one between an inactive Soviet-era store-and-dump COMSAT and an active satellite that was part of the Iridium-constellation, will probably grow more common.)  Another is to bring a measure of transparency into space launch operations thereby ensuring SLV launches are not mistaken for a hostile IR/ICBM launch as in many cases, the SLV may be derivative of the latter.  One will notice while reviewing the documents linked above that the purpose of the vehicle is generalized enough that concerns over inadvertent compromise of classified missions may be mitigated.
While these conventions do not necessarily preclude irresponsible behavior (cf: PRC 2007 ASAT test), for the most part they have provided a beneficial condominium for operations by space-faring nations.  Unfortunately, neither Iran nor DPRK are parties to any of the above and as such, inject uncertainty and concern with their operations, nascent as they maybe.  Where tensions are already high, as is the periodic case on the Korean peninsula, the opportunities for miscalculation are rife.  Consider – during the July 2006 launch attempt, the DPRK also fired a number of short- and medium range missiles within a few minutes of the launch of the TD-2.  Claiming the TD-2 was an SLV launch vice a test of an ICBM in that context, underscores the provocative nature of the evolution, generating mistrust and enforcing concern – leading to heightened states of alert for subsequent evolutions, like the one presumably in the offering. If these two states, generally considered to be poster-children for the prototypical “rogue state” wish improved engagement on the world stage, one step in the right direction would be accession and adherence to these five conventions.  Certainly it would be welcomed as one small step in the direction of normalization of relations each claims to seek.

Next: International counter-proliferation regimes