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Understanding North Korea’s Failed Launch

in Program

By Alan D. Romberg – North Korea’s unsuccessful missile launch is an enormous embarrassment for the newly installed regime of Kim Jong Un. Surely the military officers and others responsible for the event will not be treated kindly. Beyond that, one cannot rule out that Pyongyang will seek to blame the failure on sabotage from either Seoul or Washington, but given the number of witnesses to the launch preparations and launch event, and the security in place around it, this will not gain many supporters elsewhere.

Despite the failure, the issue will still be taken to the UN Security Council. The point is not whether the launch succeeded (though from a military perspective we can be thankful it did not), but rather the fact that Pyongyang made the attempt in the face of a long series of Security Council actions that forbade it.

In these circumstances, although it opposed the launch, China may fight even more fiercely to prevent additional pressure from being brought to bear on the troubled North Korean regime, not because China has sympathy for it but because this must be seen as a moment of considerable fragility for Pyongyang. The PRC foreign ministry has already issued a statement urging “cool-headedness and restraint.”

In whatever ways the North seeks to shape information about the failure for its domestic audience, the people of the DPRK are far too connected to the world by now to fully control the message. Hence, the failure of this attempt to pay homage to the 100th birth anniversary of North Korean President for Life Kim Il Sung will likely make the regime something between an object of ridicule and one of great national embarrassment. Surely no North Korean who values her freedom or even life will publicly give vent to any feelings other than total support, but the regime will have to worry about the impact of this event on its credibility at home and the level of its authoritativeness (other than that imposed through outright repression).

Unfortunately, even if the UN Security Council fails to come up with either a resolution or a presidential statement, the likelihood is that Pyongyang will cite international pressure and will proceed with another nuclear test in the not too distant future. Indeed, chagrin over this failure may drive such an effort forward with even greater intensity lest North Korea’s presumed nuclear “insurance card” be seen to be totally meaningless.

While this is not a moment for gloating by the outside world, neither is it a moment to rush back to the negotiating table with a regime that not only has blatantly flouted the will of the international community but also willfully torpedoed an “agreement” with the United States on which the ink was barely dry. (See here.) That said, the United States and other Six-Party Talks partners should remain open to sit down with the North if there is convincing reason to believe the North will take seriously the kinds of commitments it made in the February 29 agreement that now lies in tatters on the floor.

At the very least, it will be some time before such a situation can be created. And if the North does proceed with a third nuclear test, that time will be stretched out considerably.

Two final thoughts. First, while no one should have any illusions that China can turn the situation around on its own, Beijing does need to look at the “fruits” of its indulgent behavior over many years, especially its actions on the North’s behalf in the past two years.

And second, while it would be easy enough to blame the U.S. government for its “naïveté” in negotiating the February 29 arrangement, that would be unfair. No one has any great faith in the North’s willingness or intention to stick with restrictive agreements over a long period of time. And one might have asked the confirming question: “OK, you say you have the ‘right’ to launch a satellite; but you understand and have acknowledged our position that any such launch would violate UN resolutions and lead to collapse of this agreement. So, do you intend to launch a satellite in connection with the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth-as is widely rumored-or not?”

Many people believe that the North Korean foreign ministry officials involved in the negotiation felt that they were acting in good faith, and that the permission they had from the center to agree to the February 29 terms meant that the leadership would back them. So asking that question might well not have elicited a response that would have prevented either the agreement or the North’s action in violation of it.

Meanwhile, believing in the North’s intention to move ahead with an agreement that apparently had the blessing of Kim Jong Il before he died was not entirely unreasonable. Frankly, I would have asked that final question. But, as I say, I’m not at all sure it would have produced a different result. Dealing with an inexperienced (and apparently captive to the military) new “great leader” is risky business. This is now clearer than ever. So, like the launch, the agreement failed, and any appetite to deal with Kim Jong Un in the hope that he would set out on a new path is now gone. It is a shame, and it is a waste (by the North) of a considerable opportunity. But it is reality.


Photo Credit: Panorama

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