Breaking news! North Korea launched a rocket and it failed in flight crashing into the sea. Actually, a real “breaking news” story would have been if it had stayed airborne for more than a minute or even entered the earths orbit. The reality is that Pyongyang is not capable of a serious rocket launch and everyone knows it. The CIA, the Mossad and South Korean intelligence all know damn good and well that it will be decades before the Kim’s can pose a serious threat with a rocket. Why do we pay such attention to this? Because it suits our regional political goals in Asia. Why don’t the Chinese condemn it? Because they know it’s not going to happen and see little to gain from piling on a regime that is little more than an isolated relic of the Cold War.
Defying warnings from the international community, North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Friday, but it broke apart before escaping the earth’s atmosphere and fell into the sea, officials said. “It flew about a minute, and it flew into the ocean,” said Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. He added that Japanese authorities “have not identified any negative impacts, so far,” though he said the international ramifications could be significant. “This is something that we think is a regrettable development,” he said.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the global security foundation The Ploughshares Fund, told CNN that the launch’s apparent failure “shows the weakness of the North Korea missile program” and suggests that the threat from North Korea has been “exaggerated.” “It’s a humiliation,” he told CNN. “I wouldn’t want to be a North Korean rocket scientist today.” “Our government strongly criticizes their action,” said South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Sung Hwan. “They have ignored the starvation of their people and spent money on missiles. It is very unfortunate.” NHK Television of Japan, citing an official with the Japanese Defense Ministry, said the rocket broke into four pieces before falling.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials tracked the missile, which they identified as a North Korean Taepo Dong-2 missile. “Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea,” they said in a news release. “The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat.” The incident demonstrates an “unblemished track record of failure,” said a U.S. official, who credited international sanctions for preventing Pyongyang from obtaining needed materials.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that Pyongyang “can expect a strong response from the international community if it continues to develop its missile and nuclear capabilities.” South Korea’s Yonhap Television News, quoting a South Korean defense ministry official, said debris appeared to have landed 190 to 210 kilometers off Gunsan’s west coast, near the Yellow Sea. The U.N. Security Council will meet Friday on the launch, two U.N. diplomats and a U.S. official told CNN. The meeting had previously been scheduled, U.S. officials said. At the United Nations, diplomats had warned that Pyongyang would face further isolation if it went ahead.
The U.S. official said that, despite the launch’s failure, “it will not change our response.” The White House press secretary, in a statement, said the failed launch “threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.” The statement added, “North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry.” “This was supposed to be associated with (Kim Jong Un’s) ascension to power. So for this thing to fail … is incredibly embarrassing,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs for the U.S. National Security Council and now a Georgetown University professor.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the rocket remained in the air for slightly more than a minute and did not affect Japanese territory. After the failure, the Japanese government held a security meeting. The launch occurred at 7:39 a.m. Friday, NORAD said. Immediately afterward, the South Korean military dispatched helicopters and ships in an attempt to find debris related to the rocket launch, according to YTN. The one country that had no immediate response was North Korea itself. In Pyongyang, state television made no mention of the incident. The United States, South Korea and other countries see the launch as a cover for a ballistic missile test. International leaders had urged North Korea to cancel the launch, but Pyongyang refused to back down, insisting the operation is for peaceful purposes.
The North Koreans said the rocket was needed to launch a weather satellite into orbit. In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney had said the launch would be a “significant and clear demonstration of bad faith” on the part of the North, making it impossible for the United States to follow through on the food-aid deal.South Korea described the planned move as a “grave provocation” and said it would respond with “appropriate countermeasures.” Meanwhile, the Philippines and South Korea ordered commercial planes and fishing boats to stay clear of the rocket’s proposed path. “This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to the existence of their system,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week. “And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.”
A recent report from South Korean intelligence officials said that North Korea is planning a new nuclear test in the area where it staged previous atomic blasts. The South Korean intelligence report noted that the two previous rocket launches that Pyongyang said were intended to put satellites into orbit were followed a few weeks or months later by nuclear tests. The last time Pyongyang carried out what it described as a satellite launch, in April 2009, the U.N. Security Council condemned the action and demanded that it not be repeated. That rocket traveled 2,300 miles before its third stage fell into the Pacific Ocean. And in 2006, a missile failed after about 40 seconds into flight.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters outside the Security Council chambers that members don’t have “clear agreement” about what steps to take if the launch goes ahead. “But one thing I can tell you: We have unanimity of understanding that if it were to happen, that would be a clear violation of two Security Council resolutions.” And Rice warned, “Every time they go down a path such as this, their isolation intensifies, the needs of their people increase and they become more and more out of the bounds of the international community. That will be the case if they do so.” Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said countries need “to do everything possible to defuse tension rather than inflame the situation there.” China is North Korea’s leading ally.
The launch came amid North Korean preparations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea who ruled the Communist state for more than four decades. His birthday on April 15, known as the “Day of the Sun,” is a key public holiday. On Wednesday, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party held a special conference that helped firm up the position of Kim’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, the secretive state’s new leader. Korean television showed a somber Kim standing beneath two towering statues of his grandfather and his late father, Kim Jong Il, while receiving applause from party functionaries and the military. Kim Jong Il was given the title of “eternal general secretary” of the Workers’ Party, while Kim Jong Un was named the party’s first secretary.
The title appears to be a newly created position that sets the stage for a virtual coronation of Kim Jong Un, says North Korea watcher Jonathan Pollack of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Creating this new position is sort of like retiring a jersey number for a famous baseball player,” Pollack said. “It shows a deference to his father and to the old guard, while still cementing his control on power.” North Korea announced other titles for Kim Jong Un, including making him a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Kim Jong Un was already being described as the supreme leader of the party, state and army. But it is unclear how directly the young Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, is involved in policy decisions.
The leadership transition bears similarities to the previous transfer of power from one generation of the Kim family to another. “Kim Jong Il is now venerated at the same level as his father, buried in the same tomb, and they are making statues of them riding together on horseback,” Pollack said. “But Kim Jong Un never got the on-the-job training his father did, so he may have this title to allow some mentoring or sharing power and decisions with his elders.”
It’s pretty clear why North Korea insists on making it’s neighbors mad. It is an isolated regime whose soul claim to fame is it’s million man army. It’s power is all it has and even that is largely perception. U.S.–North Korea relations recently enjoyed 16 optimistic days: between February 29, when Pyongyang signed the “Leap Day” arms control agreement with the United States, and March 16, when it announced plans to conduct the very kind of rocket launch that it had just forsworn. Reacting to the announcement of the satellite launch, which is intended to commemorate the centenary of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth, U.S. President Barack Obama warned North Korea about the consequences of provocation and called on China to stop “turning a blind eye” to the North Korean nuclear program.
The denunciations Obama and others have been making sound like a familiar refrain. “Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something,” Obama said in his now-famous Prague speech, in which he condemned North Korea’s April 2009 rocket launch. But the rules aren’t binding, North Korea’s violations aren’t meaningfully punished, words are mostly just words, and China does little. North Korea’s saber rattling today represents only the most recent episode in a long history of unpunished provocation. In 1968, North Korean forces seized a U.S. Navy ship and its crew, and in 1976, they killed with an axe two U.S. servicemen who were trying to trim an overhanging tree in the demilitarized zone. (The Americans responded to the latter incident by dispatching the most heavily armed landscaping operation in world history, with tree-trimmers in the DMZ accompanied by jets flying overhead.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the regime repeatedly attempted to assassinate the South Korean president; in 1974, South Korea’s first lady was killed when a suspected agent from the North tried to shoot President Park Chung Hee.
In another presidential assassination attempt, in 1983, North Korean operatives planted a bomb in Rangoon that killed several South Korean cabinet members and other government officials. Four years later, agents bombed a civilian airplane, killing all 115 aboard. More recently, the North Korean military torpedoed the South Korean frigate Cheonan and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. In every instance, the joint U.S.-South Korean command, Combined Forces Command (CFC), has let North Korea get away with its misbehavior. One sanctions regime after another has not deterred aggression. Restraint in the face of such provocation is unusual, in particular for the United States, which has not been shy about using military force when it or its allies are attacked. For example, Manuel Noriega’s military forces harassed Americans in Panama and killed a U.S. marine; the United States invaded and deposed Noriega. In 1986, Libya bombed a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen; the U.S. military launched air strikes in Libya, killing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s daughter.
North Korea escapes such punishment thanks to a powerful deterrent. The first leg of Pyongyang’s strategic triad is its “madman” image: the idea that the country might react to retaliation by plunging the peninsula into general war. North Korean officials are not irrational, as so often depicted in the media. Rather, they are following in the tradition of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who spoke of feigning irrationality in order to intimidate his adversaries. Through its wild rhetoric and behavior at home and abroad, Pyongyang has told the world that in the international game of chicken, it will not swerve – that it is so ready to fight that it will starve its people and devote a quarter of its economy to defense, hack up enemy soldiers with an axe, and even try to assassinate presidents. This reputation has helped convince CFC’s leaders that they cannot rely upon the normal rules of deterrence, that with such an opponent, tit-for-tat retaliation is too risky and too likely to lead to all-out war.
Make no mistake: no one thinks that North Korea would actually win that war. The country is dwarfed economically by South Korea, and the military balance long ago shifted against the North. In the late 1990s, military analysts concludedthat CFC would prevail should a war ever be fought, and the ensuing two decades of famine and energy shortages have only weakened North Korea’s position. But even though Pyongyang would lose this war, no one wants to fight it, either. North Korea can still inflict terrible pain on South Korea (and possibly, with its ballistic missiles, on nearby Japan).
The city of Seoul, home to more than ten million people, lies well within range of North Korean artillery. North Korea’s leaders know that a second Korean war would be an existential war – that neither the regime nor they themselves would survive a defeat – and so they would have an incentive to use every weapon in their arsenal, including weapons of mass destruction. Is North Korea so crazy that if CFC carried out an act of limited retaliation, the country would start a war that would end in its own certain destruction? No one wants to find out.
The second leg of the North Korean triad is the specter of its own collapse. Because of its economic weakness and uncertainty about its political leadership since the recent power transition, the country looks like a house of cards that a nudge will send crashing down. Neighbors fear that the regime’s collapse would upend the country’s food distribution network, ushering in a humanitarian crisis and sending refugees (and perhaps some loose nukes) streaming across borders. CFC and China may each intervene to find the missing nuclear weapons or to stabilize a chaotic North Korea, which could escalate the crisis.
Thus Seoul hesitates to hit North Korea hard: not only because it worries about this kind of instability in the short term but also because it dreads the longer-term problem of having to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling, and its unhealthy population is ill equipped to function in a modern state. Cleaning up North Korea’s mess would consume the time and treasure of a generation of South Koreans. From China’s perspective, the potential nightmares of collapse playing out on its border (and in the longer term, the thought of a unified Korea aligned with the United States) explain why Beijing has been unwilling to discipline Pyongyang.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons constitute the third leg of its deterrence strategy. For many years, CFC refrained from retaliating because it feared another costly conventional war. Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has made the thought of a second Korean war even more horrific. But Washington can’t acknowledge that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is working: after all, the Obama administration’s campaign for a world free of nuclear weapons is founded on the assertion that they are useless. Still, even though the United States will never admit that it is being deterred by a weak adversary with a handful of malfunctioning nuclear devices, North Korea knows it – and so do Iran and other nuclear aspirants that fear regime change.
Thanks to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other countries deplore North Korean belligerence but confine their retaliation to a barrage of rhetoric. Countries tend to be extraordinarily cautious when dealing with nuclear-armed adversaries. India, for example, has been forced to tolerate Pakistani terrorism, most prominently after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. In the wake of an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 (reportedly carried out by groups harbored in Pakistan), the Indian cabinet resolved, “We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors wherever they are, whoever they are.” But it never did so, because that would have involved military actions that could have led to nuclear war. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, like North Korea’s, give it a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It is tempting to presume that there is some limit to the world’s tolerance of North Korean aggression – some point at which South Korea and the United States, despite fears of a war and collapse, would conclude that North Korea is too dangerous a country to live with and that regime change is the less terrible option. But that presumption could be wrong. As intolerable as it is to absorb North Korea’s assassination attempts and other provocations, it is also hard to imagine what could possibly prompt Seoul and Washington to gamble on regime change in a wrecked, nuclear-armed disaster of a country. And so the games continue. North Korea continues to play rowdy and undisciplined neighbor in Asia and we pretend to care while in reality all any of us in the west are really concerned about is a humanitarian crisis that we are all woefully unprepared for.
CNN and Jennifer Lind an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College contributed to this report.