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The Peninsula

Why North Korea’s Failed Missile Launch is Bad News for Beijing

Published April 13, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Jack Pritchard

There was a plausible scenario ready to work itself out with a successful launch of a missile by North Korea.  The Security Council would meet and issue a stern presidential statement condemning Pyongyang.  North Korea would push back rhetorically, claiming its sovereign right to space exploration while Beijing would send a high level delegation to Pyongyang to privately caution the North not to conduct a third nuclear test.  Because the Security Council presidential statement carries no actual new punishments, Pyongyang would have absorbed the criticism and reveled in its achievement of placing a satellite in orbit and, most importantly, would not have seen the need to conduct a third nuclear test – at least not in the near term.  Beijing would have been given credit for preventing the situation from escalating out of hand.

But that is not what happened.  Pyongyang gambled that it could successfully launch a satellite and in a grand gesture to spotlight the launch as the centerpiece in the celebration of the country’s founder’s 100th birthday, the North invited the international press to witness the event. The consequences of that decision were immediately evident when Pyongyang was forced to publicly admit that the missile had failed.  In contrast to past failures where North Korea has declared success to its citizens, there was no possibility that Pyongyang could cover up this failure.  Journalists were in real time communications with their networks and within minutes of the missile failure being reported outside of North Korea, the invited journalists were pressing their North Korean minders for comments about the failure. While there are controls on the 1 million cell phones in North Korea, news of the missile failure was certain to spread quickly.

The embarrassment to the new regime cannot be over stated.  The failure will cast a dark shadow over the most important celebratory day in North Korean history.  The credibility and perhaps the survivability of the regime are at stake.  Pyongyang will need a spectacular achievement to overcome the national embarrassment it finds itself in now.  Declaring yourself a “strong and prosperous nation” requires that you be able to point to some kind of tangible achievement. What that means is that it is now much more likely that North Korea will move forward with its third nuclear test.  Unlike a missile launch that is observable and is either a success or failure, a nuclear detonation, regardless of yield, can be touted as an absolute success.

If Pyongyang does proceed with a nuclear test, it will also mean that North Korea has made the political calculation that it can do anything without fear of serious negative consequences from Beijing. It will have concluded that China has put itself in a position where it will not allow North Korea to collapse – no matter what.  And it will be right.

The precedent for this type of calculation was set several years ago.  In spite of the tough non-proliferation rhetoric coming out of the George W. Bush administration, Pyongyang calculated that it could cooperate with Syria in building a nuclear reactor (proliferating nuclear technology) and get away with it.  Unfortunately, that calculation proved correct.  There were no consequences.

Now China finds itself in a difficult situation. What, if any, leverage can it exert to prevent a third nuclear test and not risk contributing to the collapse of North Korea?  For Beijing, the answer is: very little.  The need for Pyongyang to overcome the immense embarrassment caused by the very public failure of its missile and to quell any latent rumblings about the leadership of Kim Jong Un is far stronger than any unrealistic threat by Beijing to seriously punish the North.

While a successful satellite launch would have had negative consequences regarding North Korea’s missile delivery program, it just might have precluded the need for a third nuclear test.  However much relief there is because of the missile failure, it just may mean that Pyongyang disregards any warnings from China and goes ahead with a nuclear test.

Jack Pritchard is the former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the President of the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Joseph Turk Jun’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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