North Korea’s failed rocket launch

13 April 2012

North Korea is in the news again: this time, it failed to launch a rocket that was supposed to carry a satellite to orbit, for what North Korea claimed to be peaceful purposes, but which everyone else assumed was a test for a long-range missile. Not much is known about the smoothness of the succession, but a lot seemed to ride on this rocket for the regime, as it wanted to demonstrate its military prowess, both to its domestic audience and to other states in the region and beyond. The lack of concrete information means that many speculations and theories are offered about domestic politics in North Korea: many of them are plausible and hard to disprove. Perhaps the assumption of power by Kim Jong-un has not proceeded that well, and he was in need to show that he is a strong leader to gain the trust and the support of the armed forces. There is a speculation that North Korea will conduct a nuclear test soon, partly as a compensation for this failure.

For the neighbouring countries, such as South Korea and Japan, and for the US, this outcome – a failure – was probably the best of all the bad possibilities. For example, the Japanese government has been sounding unusually bellicose in this matter and had repeatedly stated that it would have shot down the rocket, had it posed any threat to Japanese territory. Though there were questions as to whether the PAC-3s and the Aegis-equipped ships could actually shoot the rocket down or not, and even if the rocket had been successfully intercepted, it would have escalated the tensions quite dramatically, as North Korea would have seen it as an affront.

Despite its failure, this launch was an act of defiance by North Korea of the international pressure and the UNSC resolutions that had prohibited such launches. There will be discussions in the UNSC, and there may be some sort of condemnation, but given China’s position on this issue, it’s unlikely that anything of real substance will come out of them. Iran and Syria are more pressing issues than North Korea at the moment. Furthermore, North Korea has cut itself off and has been cut off from the rest of the world, and for that reason, it is somewhat immune to sanctions. Even if sanctions were to be tightened, and food and fuel aid were to be refused, such would make the lives of the North Korean people more deplorable than weaken the regime. In other words, there is not much that the outsiders, the international community, can do about North Korea or induce a change in its regime.

Over the past decade or so, and despite but also because of the terrible economic conditions, North Korea has seemingly perfected the art of blackmailing. Its blackmailing works on two, somewhat contradictory, prongs. On the one hand, North Korea stresses its weakness: it asks for food and oil, since the country is in such a bad state. There is no doubt that food is scarce, and many people are malnourished. On the other hand, North Korea threatens war and annihilation, since it has nuclear weaponry and missile technology. It results in a situation, where North Korea makes demands on the basis of its weakness and strength: it not only has the capability to wreak havoc, if it wishes so, but also if it were to implode because other countries refuse to help, then there would be a huge problem with nuclear proliferation and regional destabilization.

So long as the North Korean regime stays essentially in the current form, then there will be more sabre-rattling and more provocations in the future, since that has been the way North Korea conducts its diplomacy. Other countries have not come up with an effective policy to deal with North Korea: there seems to be no easy or neat answer to the question what to do with North Korea?