So North Korea has launched its rocket, and it was neither a bluff nor an action it had previously offered to cancel in exchange for economic assistance or some other benefit for the country. The launch was recorded by an American military satellite, and the spent stages fell into the Pacific Ocean exactly where they were supposed to. It even made it into orbit.
While those sympathetic to socialist science are awaiting the broadcast of patriotic songs from space, let’s discuss the causes and effects of this action.
As a matter of form, now isn’t the best time to be launching rockets. China expressed concern when the upcoming launch was first announced, and Japan, the United States and South Korea have already begun saying the launch had a military purpose. Technically speaking, that isn’t the case. To test a ballistic missile, the critical thing isn’t how it lifts off, but how it’s guided to its target. However, the UN resolution prohibits the North from all launches using ballistic technologies, and although it’s unclear how this affects every country’s right to the peaceful development of space, this was obviously an act of flagrant disobedience.
However, neither the experts nor the politicians are very worked up about it. Every North Korean rocket launch is a performance in which the roles were established long ago. The Japanese authorities showcase their nationalism, talk louder than others about the need to convene the UN Security Council and deploy troops, and say that if there is the slightest risk the North Korean rocket will fall on Japanese territory, they will shoot it down immediately. US State Department officials and liberal society in general once again talk about provocation and the need for tougher sanctions, or at least for making the sanctions into a more realistic mechanism for influencing Pyongyang. Experts of various political stripes express their opinions — including this author, who believes the UN resolution text was wrong and suggests replacing it with one that would focus on preventing military programs, not what the more open-minded would consider a dual-purpose program.
We’ve seen and heard all this before. That means there’ll be a lot of discussion for a while, but then things will settle down and matters will return more or less to the way they were before. The only visible impact is that launching a rocket during South Korea’s presidential election campaign makes it much more likely that the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, will win the election — she’ll naturally play the North Korea card. Indeed, the general mood in the country will give her a few more votes. After all, the elections are coming up on December 19.
Now for the causes. From the standpoint of common sense, it would appear that Pyongyang has “shot itself in the foot” because the launch uniquely makes it the successor to the previous policy, lowering expectations that Western countries will change their attitude towards North Korea and that South Korea will abide by a more constructive policy. For those who aren’t Korea specialists, this could be another reason to complain about the unpredictability of the Kims, but they would be wrong. As the way North Korea is depicted in the media and elsewhere reveals, people take a biased view of whatever happens there, and that includes repeating absolutely unrealistic stories about the mortar bombardments.
Therefore, the first hypothesis that may explain why North Korea launched the rocket now concerns the general situation in the world, especially in Syria. The Assad regime’s position is deteriorating, and that’s another reason why force can’t be used against North Korea. Syria’s fate, like Libya’s, strengthens those favoring holding firm against the West who feel that neither surrendering the nuclear program in exchange for forgetting about the past nor relying on Russia’s and China’s support to deter direct intervention is a guarantee against attempts at regime change. They need only properly show their teeth by demonstrating that North Korea will respond if any action is taken — and no one needs pyrrhic victories nowadays.
In addition, if Syria’s regime falls, evidence of cooperation between Syria and North Korea on nuclear missiles will most likely be presented and used as to demonize Assad and to step up the pressure on North Korea, regardless of the truth of the matter.
The second reason has to do with the situation in the South involving the launch of the Naro rocket. South Korea’s rocket program (which could be subjected to the same set of accusatory clichés usually employed against the North) can’t yet boast of a successful launch despite Russian assistance. Beating the Southerners and showing that “unlike theirs, our rocket works” is a good way for North Korea to show it’s a “powerful and prosperous nation.”
Another hypothesis says that the technocrats or the military insisted on the launch, and the timing was chosen for technical reasons, not for reasons of foreign policy. The test schedule might be independent of the political situation, and although people with blinders on may see it as a sign the young leader is weak and under the thumb of the “hawks,” that isn’t the only possible explanation.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget the anniversary of the death of the country’s leader. It’s an important political tradition in North Korea. Neglecting it could undermine the government’s legitimacy — and that is much more significant than ratcheting up North Korea’s image as a rogue state.
But lessons can be learned from the launch? There are two.
First, we shouldn’t underestimate North Korea’s scientific and technical capabilities or view it with tunnel vision. It’s worthwhile remembering that the day before the launch the Japanese and South Korean media referenced South Korean government sources in articles saying the launch had been postponed indefinitely and the rocket had been disassembled.
Second, the launch shows that the strategy of applying pressure and imposing sanctions is unproductive, especially when combined with double standards and resolutions that contradict other UN documents. Perhaps the strategy needs to be changed, starting with amendments to the wording of the Security Council resolution — to severely punish actual military launches and avoid double standards by recognizing the right of every country to engage in the peaceful development of space.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.