North Korea’s Successful Rocket Launch

By: Duyeon Kim

An already intractable problem just became more complicated, although it was much anticipated. On December 12, 2012, at approximately 9:51 a.m. KST, North Korea launched another Unha-3 long-range rocket-satellite with success. An earlier launch of the same rocket failed in April.

In a noon broadcast by its state-run TV, Pyongyang announced that it had successfully launched a satellite into orbit. International experts have confirmed an object was put into orbit but are still assessing its identity and capability.

North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket uses the same technology as its Taepodong-2 missile. Pyongyang claims its space program is for peaceful scientific purposes, but the international community believes it is a missile program in disguise aimed at achieving the capability to strike the U.S. homeland.

Pyongyang’s successful launch demonstrates a growing strategic threat, and it will continue to launch rockets/missiles and test nuclear devices. The key question is what is left in Washington’s foreign policy toolkit to halt and roll back Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs?

Motives and Meaning

No one knows with absolute certainty the inner workings of North Korea’s mastermind, but it appears December’s launch was driven largely by domestic factors that also achieved international gains. This is the year when North Korea strives to become a “strong and prosperous nation” on all fronts, particularly in science, technology, and military achievement. Such a goal in it of itself would be sufficient to fuel the North’s obsession to perfect its rocket/missile capabilities.

This month is also the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s rule, and the launch comes at a time when the young leader needs to cement his legitimacy and credentials in the eyes of his military elites and people. The successful launch was certainly a victory for the young leader who, according to state-run media, directly commanded the launch. December 17th is also the one year anniversary of the death of his father Kim Jong-il who seems to have left behind some clear marching orders when it comes to launching rockets.

Technically, December’s launch is a breakthrough for North Korea’s ballistic missile development program, signifying that it is closer to developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. homeland. However, scientists believe Pyongyang is still years away from developing a fully functioning ICBM, although the first step would be a functioning rocket with a reliable launcher and a controllable re-entry vehicle that can return to earth safely and accurately. It is unclear whether the North has been able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile – another requirement for delivering a nuclear payload to U.S. soil.

Politically, it proves Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy to his people while sending a domestic message that the North has gained leverage in future negotiations with the U.S. and the international community as a “strong power.” The regime has already stated it is a nuclear power in a revised constitution.

Implications and Future Scenarios

If history tends to repeat itself, then the short term may see escalation followed by tougher sanctions, leading to another North Korean provocation like a nuclear test followed by more sanctions. The mid-term concern is the possibility of heightened tensions in Northeast Asia fueled by a Japan that is expected to become more conservative, an outgoing South Korean administration that is likely to toughen its response, and uncertainties about how the rocket launch will impact the already tense Japan-China relationship. Some observers even fear a potential arms race in the region. A key variable is how new South Korean and Japanese administrations will deal with North Korea after both presidential elections this month. China’s new leadership is expected to remain largely consistent in its policy toward Pyongyang. In the long-term, the launch may eventually lead to the resumption of diplomatic dialogue after tensions subside and the groundwork is laid that is politically conducive for engagement.

The UN Security Council again released a President’s Statement condemning the December launch, but China holds the key to the fate of a resolution.

President Obama came into his first term with an extended hand only to have it slapped by North Korea’s 2009 missile and nuclear tests also understood to be have been driven by domestic factors. That hand was extended again – albeit conditional upon serious denuclearization steps –following Obama’s second term victory in a speech given in Myanmar, only to have it slapped again by the latest rocket launch. As the U.S. gears up for harsher penalties against Pyongyang, any possibility for Washington to resume serious diplomatic dialogue in the near future may require some persuasion by the next South Korean and Chinese presidents.

It is only a matter of time and circumstance before Pyongyang launches more missiles and tests another nuclear device – both are the crux of North Korean tactics and survival. Kim Jong-un is apparently bent on not only continuing his predecessor’s legacy, but being written into North Korean history books as the “hero” who completed building the ultimate deterrent against its nemesis, the U.S. It is too soon to tell whether the world will ever see a Gorbachev-like figure emerge from the North.

The bigger concern that further complicates the problem is the growing bond between the North Korea and Iran tag team that is already cooperating on missiles, and its implications for the Pacific, nonproliferation, and international security. The December launch sends a message to North Korea’s friends that the major powers are so far unable to stop states from pursuing their missile and nuclear ambitions. It also bolsters Pyongyang’s brand power as a growing Wal-Mart for Iranian, Pakistani, and Syrian shoppers.

Assumptions are a risky business in policymaking, but perhaps the surest assumption is that Kim Jong-un will likely continue to develop his nuclear and missile programs. The conventional wisdom in the U.S. is that options have run out, and there is not much of an appetite for serious engagement. But as Pyongyang continues to exploit differences among the other members of the Six Party Talks, it has become ever more critical for regional cooperation with a clear strategy rather than mere tactics that react to North Korean provocations.