By Charles Armstrong, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles Armstrong is the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. The views expressed are his own.
North Korea has done it again. For the second time in less than nine months, Pyongyang has fired a long-range missile, this time apparently succeeding in sending a satellite into orbit. What North Korea calls a “peaceful rocket launch,” much of the rest of the world has condemned as a military provocation and a brazen act of defiance against international sanctions. Yet despite tough talk from the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries, there is little the international community can do to punish North Korea or prevent further such acts. While North Korea’s technological capacity progresses, the policy of sanctions has demonstrably failed. It’s time to take a new approach to North Korea.
It’s important to keep in mind that North Korea has done this primarily for domestic reasons, not to send a “signal” to the world (although there is an element of signaling as well). The timing of the launch is significant. First, it comes just before the first anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il’s death, and North Korean state media has declared that commemorating the elder Kim’s passing was one reason for the launch. Second, North Korea had declared that 2012 would be the year when the country became a “Powerful and Prosperous Nation,” and a satellite launch was to be a key demonstration of North Korea’s technological progress and power.
The failure of North Korea’s earlier rocket launch in April, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s birth, made it even more urgent to have a successful launch before the end of the year. Of course, succeeding in sending a satellite into orbit hardly puts North Korea into the forefront of global technology. At best, North Korea is at the level of the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. But as we’ve seen with Chinese euphoria over that country’s recent astronaut program, “conquering space” can be a source of great national pride, even if other countries have been there before.
Primarily, then, North Korea fired a rocket to impress its own people with the country’s technological achievement under the new leadership of Kim Jong Un, and thereby to legitimate and consolidate Kim Jong Un’s rule. But it was also probably intended to show the U.S. and other countries that North Korea has the capacity to launch a long-rage missile, possibly even one that can reach the U.S. mainland, and is therefore capable of defending itself against attack. North Korea has already successfully tested a nuclear device twice, and may do so again soon. From the regime’s point of view, missile and nuclear capacity combined offer a powerful deterrent to any military threat. The rocket launch may also have been timed to coincide with the South Korean election, scheduled for December 19. North Korea is telling the next South Korean president that it needs to be taken seriously.
North Korea claims that, like any other country, it has the right under international law to test its missiles and to launch satellites into orbit for peaceful purposes. In a narrow legal sense that may be true, but North Korea is not any other country. Following North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, the country has been under United Nations sanctions designed to deter both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. U.N. sanctions were reinforced and broadened in 2009, after North Korea’s second nuclear test. Now, North Korea has defied these restrictions by launching its Unha-3 rocket, testing missile technology that clearly falls under the U.N. sanctions regime.
The United States has led the calls for tough, punitive sanctions after North Korea’s latest act. But it is not clear that new sanctions will be any more successful than previous ones. North Korea is already one of the most economically isolated countries in the world. Unlike Iran, North Korea does not have oil exports or significant overseas assets that can be blocked by Western countries. Most important, China has not enforced U.N. sanctions strongly, if at all, and is the main conduit for North Korea’s trade and investment. Despite officially supporting sanctions against Pyongyang, China does not want sanctions to debilitate, much less destabilize, a regime that it sees as an important buffer state on its periphery. The Chinese government has criticized North Korea’s rocket launch, but much less strongly than the U.S., Japan or South Korea. Without a strong Chinese commitment – something we’re unlikely to see in any near-term future – sanctions will not work.
At the moment, then, there is little the world can do to punish North Korea for its missile launch or prevent North Korea from testing its nuclear technology, which may be the next thing coming. But once the excitement over the rocket launch has died down in the coming weeks and months, the United States and its partners in East Asia and in the U.N. will want to take a more pro-active and coordinated approach to North Korea than we’ve seen in the last few years of relative neglect.
New administrations are coming into office in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. Together, they need to convince the young regime of Kim Jong Un that its interest are better served by diplomatic dialogue and economic engagement than firing rockets and testing weapons.