NK‘s rocket launch
It seems harder to figure out what North Korea is up to now under Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Only 16 days after North Korea agreed with the United States on Feb. 29 to impose a moratorium on long-range missile tests and to suspend uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities, the North announced a plan to launch another satellite rocket.
The announcement came while Washington was fine-tuning the details on its provision of nutritional assistance to the North, and one week after Pyongyang’s Vice Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told an American audience in New York that his country would honor its commitment under the Feb. 29 agreement. Many believed that the North would not launch a missile test thanks to the positive outcome of recent U.S.-DPRK talks.
If North Korea launches a new long-range rocket, as it said it would between April 12 and 16 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birthday, it will be a third such attempt _ with its two previous failed attempts to put a satellite in an orbit in 1998 and 2009. As in 2009, the North Koreans would claim again that the purpose is a peaceful exploration of space. Nonetheless, it will be viewed as a provocative missile test, because the same technology is used for satellites and ballistic missiles.
Several puzzling questions are being raised regarding Pyongyang’s motivation for conducting new launch. Is there a schism in the North Korean leadership or a division between the military and the foreign ministry? Does Kim Jong-un, unlike his father Kim Jong-il, lack control over the competing groups in the regime? Is he only a figurehead, acting on the script written for him to visit military units and other spots of importance? Is the North Korean leadership testing U.S. will to abandon its “hostile policy?”
My answers to these questions would be negative, except that Kim Jong-un, who seems to be still consolidating his power base, may not have as strong control as his father did. Some diplomatic sources reportedly think there is time for dissuading the North Koreans to cancel its rocket launch. I don’t think such efforts would succeed. Did Kim change his mind since he authorized First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan to agree on suspending missile tests? Alternatively, did the North Korean leadership deliberately cheat us again?
Although Kim Jong-un must have been involved in the making of the conflicting decisions, it is not knowable whether he personally fully understands the ramifications of another launch at this point. He will quickly learn that he cannot have it both ways.
There is some empirical evidence that due to a system of compartmentalization, the foreign ministry or even the military is excluded from sensitive information on nuclear and missile programs. In 2000, Kim Jong-il said, “Nobody, even the military, except for the scientists working on the project, knew about the rocket” of 1998, which later was labeled the Taepodong-1 missile.
Kim Gye-gwan possibly did not know about a missile launch plan that was in the making, when he agreed on the missile moratorium. He well understands that another launch would cancel the U.S. plan to provide nutritional assistance and create a new obstacle on the path to improve relations with America.
The State Department’s spokesperson has already said that a launch would make “the implementation of any nutritional agreement very difficult” and “to move forward with a regime whose word we have no confidence in.” The North Koreans remember their 2009 attempt only brought on stiffer sanctions through the U.N. Resolution 1874, which they would violate with this intended new launch.
Pyongyang’s leadership is caught between two incompatible options between badly needed food assistance and the political and military significance of another missile test to show Kim Jong-un’s strength as the North enters its declared 2012 threshold of “a strong and prosperous state.”
The North Koreans do not really appreciate vitamins and biscuits in the form of food assistance. They traditionally eat rice and other grains for meals. Colin Powell once said, “They can’t eat plutonium.” But, they also live on pride, eating frugal meals. It is highly likely that they will carry out their launch in an attempt to put their satellite into space.
As they did with their 2009 launch, they have informed the international aviation and maritime authorities of the range of time for the launch and the rocket’s trajectory to prevent possible damage from debris. This at least is a constructive result of U.S.-DPRK talks from the past.
For the first North Korean test in 1998, they did it without any announcement. The same DPRK negotiator, Kim Gye-gwan, was quiet when his American counterpart raised safety concerns of civilian carriers underneath the flying rocket. The American representative then said, “Did your country ever think of the safety of those carriers?”
Ri Yong-ho made an interesting comment in New York, “Unlike his previous generation, our new leader wants to have peace, not confrontation, with the United States … We would be ready to give up nuclear weapons, if the United States concludes the relationship of an alliance with us and provides us with a nuclear umbrella.”
Pyongyang is preparing another launch, while making this kind of strategic statement, which should be worth Washington and Seoul exploring further on a long-term basis, in consideration of the shifting balance of power in Northeast Asia.
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.