North Korea's missile gamble

opinion December 06, 2012 00:00

By The Korea Herald
Asia News Ne

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Almost a year has passed since North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un took power following his father's death on December 17, 2011. The Swiss-educated young man was widely expected to take his impoverished nation in a new direction and show a leadership dif

Since his enthronement, the 20-something leader has repeatedly pledged to focus on building the economy and raising the standard of living, saying that it is an objective laid out for him by his father.

As recently as August, Kim told a visiting Chinese delegation that one key goal of the Workers’ Party was to develop the economy and improve livelihoods so that the North Korean people could lead happy and civilized lives.

Yet he has been all talk and no action. He has not made any serious attempt to lead the isolated and destitute nation in a new direction. Like his father, he has been caught up in the illusion that nuclear weapons and long-range missiles will make North Korea a strong and prosperous state.

Now, as the first anniversary of his father’s death nears, the son is preparing to commemorate him in his unique way – a rocket launch that is widely seen as a cover for a ballistic missile test.

The North’s state news agency KCNA said last Saturday that an Unha-3 rocket would lift off between December 10 and 22 to put an earth-observing satellite into space. The planned launch deviates from Pyongyang’s past practice in two respects. First, it is the second launch attempt this year, following the failed one in April. Never before has Pyongyang made two launch attempts in a year. The short interval between the two launches calls into question whether the North has identified the causes of the April debacle and fixed whatever went wrong. The North’s space agency asserted that it had improved the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket since the April disaster. Yet chances are high that the December launch could follow the same fate as the April one, which crashed into the sea after flying a mere 120 kilometres.

Second, Pyongyang has thus far launched rockets in the spring or summer, not in the middle of winter. This is because weather conditions are better in spring and summer. For a rocket like the Unha-3 that uses liquid fuel, cold weather is definitely not preferable.

When seen against this backdrop, the young North Korean leader is taking a gamble with this launch. But he appears to think he can make political gains even if the launch fails again.

It is worth noting that the North’s announcement came just one day after Kim met a senior official from Beijing, who delivered a letter from China’s new leader Xi Jinping.

China is obviously unhappy with the North’s missile test, as it goes against its policy of stabilising the Korean Peninsula. It probably has conveyed its disapproval of the test through the envoy.

The North’s decision to go ahead probably reflects Kim’s intention to reassert North Korea’s independence from foreign influence, even from China, its only ally.

Yet if the launch ends in failure again, the fallout could be much more serious than Kim may think. It will inevitably deal a serious blow to his leadership. It could even threaten his still shaky grip on power.

Of course, should the launch succeed, the young leader would reap handsome gains. It would not only bolster his leadership and control of the military but increase overseas demand for the North’s missile technology.

Yet if he calculates that a successful missile test would improve Pyongyang’s position in future negotiations with Washington and exert pressure on Seoul to change its policy on the North, he is mistaken. He should realise that his missile threat won’t change the policies of Washington or Seoul. The North’s missiles can neither change the destiny of his nation nor improve the lives of his people.

Therefore, Kim should stop his missile gamble. More importantly, he should give up the ambition of becoming a nuclear power. What he needs to do is look to Myanmar and see how a pariah state can break from isolation and get assistance from other countries.