The shock value of North Korea’s satellite launch


The Globe and Mail, December 13, 2012

The success of impoverished, sanctions-battered North Korea in placing a satellite in orbit is a major political boost and propaganda boon for its untested leader, Kim Jong-un, especially because rival South Korea has twice failed in similar efforts. But Wednesday’s launch, just days before Japan and South Korea elect new governments, threatens to make the already tense regional geopolitics murkier and complicate U.S. diplomatic strategy in northeast Asia.

The launch shows the rapid strides the reclusive communist country has made in rocket technology. Just last April, a similar rocket exploded 90 seconds after liftoff. But in barely eight months, North Korea fixed the technical glitches and successfully launched its Unha-3 rocket.

For a country that already has an arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and claims to possess nuclear arms, the launch of a satellite was clearly a political project designed to earn prestige at home and abroad. Coming a year after the death of his father, it allows Kim Jong-un to consolidate power by presenting himself as a tough leader who openly defied United Nations Security Council resolutions and international pressures.

The launch’s political fallout promises to bring U.S. President Barack Obama’s North Korea policy under withering criticism at home. It could also have a bearing on Sunday’s Japanese parliamentary election and next Wednesday’s South Korean presidential election but in diametrically opposite ways – by aiding the campaign of the leftist Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic Unity Party in South Korea, and bolstering support for Japanese nationalist and other rightist candidates.

Mr. Moon is locked in a close contest with the ruling New Frontier Party’s candidate, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961. The rocket launch has come as a fresh reminder to voters of the failure of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s policy to squeeze North Korea.

After the neo-conservative Mr. Lee took office in February of 2008, he reversed his country’s decade-long “sunshine policy” toward North Korea, choosing to cut off bilateral aid and step up pressure on Pyongyang. That, in turn, prompted the North to scale back inter-Korean contact, carry out provocative actions that included missile tests, and ratchet up bellicose rhetoric. Relations between the two Koreas dropped to a low in 2010 after the death of 46 South Korean sailors in the sinking of a warship – blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack – and the North’s shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island.

In Japan, the North Korean launch only reinforces the likelihood of a new right-wing government after more than three years of rule by the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan. Shinzo Abe, the probable next prime minister, and his Liberal Democratic Party have vowed to take a tougher line on North Korea. They have also called for revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s U.S.-imposed Constitution.

The North Korean rocket’s military significance is small compared with the expected political fallout. Theoretically, the Unha-3 gives Pyongyang an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. But, in practice, it will take the North Koreans years to try to translate that latent capability into a reality, chiefly for two reasons.

First, a launch vehicle is merely fired into outer space, while any long-range ballistic missile is designed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere from outer space – a task that demands a sophisticated re-entry vehicle that can withstand the heat and stress. And second, the Unha-3 carried a tiny satellite weighing less than 100 kilograms, while compact nuclear warheads on ICBMs weigh, on average, more than 10 times that.

There’s little room for the international community to slap additional sanctions on Pyongyang: North Korea is already one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries, with China its only economic partner. Even Western food aid has been used as leverage against North Korea, despite the larger risks of turning food into a political weapon.

If anything, the rocket launch reflects a failure of international efforts to rein in North Korea through United Nations-sponsored sanctions. These sanctions, far from disciplining Pyongyang, have acted as a spur to its missile launches, nuclear tests and covert weapons trades with other problem states such as Pakistan and Iran.

Nuclear, missile and space programs symbolize strategic autonomy and heft, and it’s not an accident that today’s main proliferation threats emanate from countries that have come under increasing international pressure – North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. This is a reminder that pressure and sanctions alone will not deliver results.

Engagement is usually necessary to influence developments within any problem state. Mr. Obama’s reversal of America’s long-standing sanctions policy on Myanmar has set in motion positive developments and helped dispel proliferation-related concerns about that country’s ties with North Korea. It’s now time for Mr. Obama to review his sanctions-only approach toward North Korea if that country is to be dissuaded from committing more acts of defiance.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

 (c) The Globe and Mail, 2012.