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The Peninsula

The Inconvenient Truth of North Korea’s Missile Test

Published March 16, 2012
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: North Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

On Friday, March 16, 2012, North Korea announced that it will launch a long-range rocket in April which will carry a “working” satellite. The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run media, stated that the satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3 will “strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes and ensure maximum transparency, thereby contributing to promoting international trust and cooperation in the field of space scientific researches and satellite launches.” This announcement comes at an inconvenient time, soon after and in contradiction to the February 29 agreement on nuclear moratorium and nutritional assistance, as well as several Track II dialogues and people-to-people exchanges. So why would North Korea take such risks now and what are similarities from the 1998 and 2009 missile launches?

Why Now?

First, the missile launch announcement is consistent with North Korea’s determination to boost leadership legitimacy. April 15 marks the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, which the regime has promised to be a grandeur event of international recognition. Therefore, the new Kim Jong-un regime must signal military and scientific success to its people. Moreover, Kim Jong-un was abruptly promoted a four-star general before the death of Kim Jong-il, and has intensively been in the public limelight visiting military units and soldiers since the death of his father. In other words, Kim Jong-un must earn his military credentials quickly and efficiently, given that the current power lies in the military. One way to do that is to launch a missile under international attention. It is also noteworthy that the regime has recently credited Kim Jong-un for directing the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. A missile launch at this point will create unity within the new regime, which is in line with the 2012 New Year Editorial.

Second, Pyongyang is testing the threshold with Washington, Seoul and other Six-Party Talks nations. It has learned that the U.S. is more open to engagement with the new Kim regime through the recent nuclear and food aid deal. The next step may be to test the waters for U.S. tolerance level against North Korea’s deviations. It is also interesting to note that this took place in spite of jeopardizing the U.S. food aid. China has reportedly sent the largest aid package to North Korea consisting of $94.8 million worth of food and goods in late February. North Korea’s only life line is not just in the U.S., allowing for increased diplomatic maneuvers.

Another possible scenario is the potential internal conflicts within the North Korean governing apparatus. Domestic politics have been difficult to assess as North Korea tightly controlled internal matters. However, this may be a first window into potential frictions between the party, military, and cabinet.

1998, 2009 and 2012: Then and Now

There are interesting similarities between the missile launches in 1998, 2009, and the potential upcoming 2012. First, North Korea was in dialogue with the U.S. or the Six-Party Talks during the three satellite launches or announcements. There was a North Korean delegation in New York in 1998; on-going Six-Party Talks in 2009; and nuclear moratorium-nutritional assistance talks in 2012. This implies that North Korea engages in the game of tug-of-war whereby creating various pressure points during negotiations in order to gain more concessions and measure the threshold.

The second similarity is that North Korea asserted its peaceful intentions to the international community prior to the testing. When other states responded with warnings and criticism, North Korea responded with even more hostility. This also points to the fact that reversal and provocations are a part of North Korean diplomatic tactics in order to gain a better negotiating position.

Another similarity is that 1998, 2009 and 2012 were election-related years. 1998 was the election of the U.S. House of Representatives, 2009 was immediately after Obama was elected and beginning his first full-year of presidency, and 2012 faces the U.S. presidential elections, as well as South Korea’s National Assembly that same week and presidential elections later in the year. South Korea is also hosting the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit later in March. North Korea is once again trying to create increased leverage at the negotiation table.

North Korea is an insecure regime with a lot to prove. It has to prove to its domestic citizens that the leadership is powerful and even generous. It also has to prove to the international community that it is in control and able to steer directions. While the February 29 nuclear agreement was a part of this tale, the new announcement of the missile launch is another part of the same tale.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Sam Howzit’s photo stream on flickr creative commons.

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