Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 13, 2012

North Korean Missile: A Yawn Moment?

On Wednesday, North Korea again launched a long-range rocket. Unlike the botched launch in April, however, this one was successful and managed to supposedly "put a peaceful satellite into orbit."

Round up the usual suspects' reactions! Nothing new here. The United States and Japan, as always, were furious. China, as always, tried to downplay the significance of the launch. What is interesting here, however, is that, as the Foreign Policy reported, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Li Baodong, the Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, ended up in a verbal match over this issue.

There are several takes from this entire episode:

First, Li Baodong is not entirely wrong and at the same time not entirely correct. I tend to agree that North Korea launched the missile with its domestic audience as the main target. The failure of the April launch put a blot over Kim Jong Un's ascension as the new leader, and in North Korea, where reality and myth tend to be mixed together to provide legitimacy to the ruler, the April failure could be seen as inauspicious, a terrible beginning for the young "emperor." The December launch, done so close to the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death (also conveniently, after China's leadership transition, making it less likely to offend China), could be seen as a way to break the portent.

Kim also needed to rein in the military. North Korea, in recent months, had led a bloody purge on its military officers, notably its high-ranking officials. Similar to Stalin's purge on the Red Army back in the 1930s, the regime most likely felt insecure and the missile test could be a way to calm the military down, demonstrably showing that they still have influence on the country's policy.

Internationally, this launch could be used to reassure North Korea's customers, notably Iran, that North Korea's missile program remains on track. Still, the international audience was not the priority in this case, otherwise North Korea would have waited until after South Korea's election, since North Korea's missile launch could benefit the ruling conservative party, which has taken a hard line against North Korea.

At the same time, however, Li Baodong is wrong, in that the North Korean rocket launch does constitute a threat to regional stability. Unlike past launches, this time, thanks to China's belligerence (and the weaknesses of Japan's politicians), Japan has seen a strong resurgence of arch conservative politicians who are not shy of advocating the need for Japan to have a nuclear weapon, such as Shintaro Ishihara, former Governor of Tokyo and potential kingmaker in Japan's politics.

Of course, it is far from certain that Japan will go nuclear. It cannot be denied, however, that the tensions in East Asia has been growing and North Korea's missile launch does nothing to calm down the situation.

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