North Korea and the Failed Launch Success

North Korea and the Failed Launch Success

By David Paul Kuhn - April 6, 2009

To U.S. analysts long involved in the peculiar trade of tealeaf reading North Korean brinkmanship, the reclusive nation's missile test is precisely what it looks like: escalation.

On Sunday, North Korea launched a rocket over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. It was North Korea's latest step toward building a nuclear arsenal and asserting itself as an East Asian power despite its withered economy and repressed society, according to interviews with experts on North Korea.

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Yet after the rocket launch U.S. headlines from Newsweek to the Associated Press read "Attention Seeking Missile [sic]" or North Korea's "rocket gambit bid for attention."

Sometimes a ballistic missile test is a ballistic missile test.

Experts believe North Korea's nuclear program is less olive branch than wooden bat. In other words, not a means toward negotiations with the United States but rather a means toward an end goal in itself, an operational North Korean nuclear armory.

Kimtology--the study of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's actions from a similar missile test in 1998 to the testing of a nuclear device in 2006--indicates that Kim believes the more powerful his military the more secure his regime. The more secure his regime, Kimtology indicates, the more able he is to get the region to meet his terms. It's less instigation for the purpose of negotiations than instigation for the purpose of power.

"Talk about how North Korea is doing this because they want U.S. attention, almost like 'let's fire off a missile to get the Americans to do negotiations,' that's not what's going on here," said Joel Wit, a longtime East Asian State Department expert who was a key actor in Bill Clinton's 1994 Agreed Framework treaty with North Korea.

"The North Koreans are building a small nuclear deterrent," Wit added.

Wit generally leans more toward the dovish side of North Korean issues. He believes as firmly as ever that Washington should, after a cooling off period, proceed with direct and aggressive talks with Pyongyang. Yet that Wit agrees with the more hawkish North Korean analysts like Henry Sokolski, a skeptic of negotiations who favors defensive precautions, indicates that few experts stateside are Pollyannaish about Pyongyang.

In its usual Orwellian fashion, North Korea said Sunday's rocket launch was only intended to send a communication satellite into orbit. The North Korean news agency, Pyongyang's propaganda machine, reported that the satellite was broadcasting "the melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans" to Kim and his late father Kim Il-Sung.

American intelligence does not hear this alleged Kim-tune. Washington believes no satellite is orbiting and that while North Korea still likely lacks the technology to create a compact nuclear warhead, it's attempting to master nuclear delivery capability.

"This thing is a nuclear weapons capable missile, with pretty good range," Sokolski said, who directs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and served from 1989 to 1993 as Defense Department deputy for nonproliferation policy under Paul Wolfowitz. "These weapons are what they have and they don't have much else," he continued.

North Korea has now presented Barack Obama with the first national security crisis of his presidency. On the same day Obama went to Prague to speak about a denuclearized world he is reminded of the nuclearized threats in that world.

The United States is forced, for the time being, to step away from any intention to rejoin North Korea at the negotiation table. The North Korean missile test, as Kim likely expected, has elicited precisely the opposite response that an "attention seeking" diplomatic measure might. Sticks are generally met with sticks in diplomacy.

For President Obama, he cannot afford to be viewed as too conciliatory to belligerents on one side of the world while spearheading a fragile attempt at thawing relations with Iran on the other side. And the two issues are not wholly unrelated. The U.S. believes Iran and North Korea were and are likely working together to realize both nations' nuclear aspirations

Sunday's launch was followed within hours by predictable calls from the United States, Japan and South Korea for tougher U.N. sanctions, during an emergency Security Council meeting. No less predictably, China and Russia scuttled that proposal.

In recent years the general cycle has been: North Korea escalates tensions; Japan and South Korea justifiably jump; the U.S. president charges "provocation" and the Russians and Chinese call for "restraint." Diplomatic paralysis ensues. North Korea continues to build a nuclear arsenal.

"I kind of feel it's "Casablanca" and we are rounding up the usual suspects," in Wit's words.

Pyongyang realizes Washington fears a second Korean War. Tokyo and Seoul view North Korea as an existential threat. Washington would prefer to contain and gradually convince Pyongyang with carrots more than sticks that peace succeeds where brinksmanship fails. Beijing only requires an absence of war, to prevent a flood of refugees along its border and bolster the communist nation it effectively defended in the Korean War against the United States.

The region therefore remains intensely fragile even as, at first blush, it appears the American public leans hawkish. A Rasmussen Reports poll over the weekend found that 57 percent of U.S. voters support a "military action to eliminate North Korea's ability to launch missiles."

Yet that is likely an exaggerated finding. Americans may prefer a more measured strategy if it was explained that a U.S. strike may lead North Korea to attack Japan, Pyongyang to fire its thousands of artillery pieces trained on Seoul and cause a second Korean War.

It's that worst-case scenario, combined with China's place as North Korea's patron, which has kept Washington closer to a policy of containment than confrontation.

Meanwhile, despite U.S. and Japanese warnings, North Korea fires another rocket and moves a step closer to a nuclear arsenal. As Wit put it, the missile test "may not have been a success, but they likely learned an awful lot."

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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