North Korea launch for domestic consumption
December 12th, 2012
11:46 AM ET

North Korea launch for domestic consumption

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.

 More from CNN: Rocket program timeline

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.

 More from GPS: North Korea hits its mark

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.


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Topics: Asia • China • Japan • North Korea • United Nations • United States

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Tchampio

    I'm sorry, but I do not understand why we should be able to stop someones intellectual development. Building such a rocket requires enormous fundamental understanding of so much engineering that basically it is a good adventure for a country to under go.
    Obviously, consequences would/should be swift if they acted agressively

    December 12, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
  2. Hate Wins

    My heart goes to the people of N.K. By all reports they are living just above the starvation level set by even the poorest nation in Africa. But they spend time and resources on this.
    And yes we have hungry people here in the U.S. but when you really look children go hungry here because their parents who want go to the nearest food bank and pickup something to eat. We provide morning and noon meals to these children in their schools, W.I.C. program for those to young for school and finely food stamps “CARDs” to buy their food.
    Why because it takes away from their drug use or soap opera time or just to darn lazy. The people of N.K. do not have a food bank to go to.

    December 12, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  3. Cam

    NK is not getting on the UN's good side any time soon. If there is something that North Korea and China share indefinitely, it is their eastern collectivist culture; the sum of the parts are only significant to that of the whole. The UN was founded by western countries, including the members of the EU, thus places a huge ethical boundary between these parties. On the eastern side, NK wants to show what they are made of. On the western side, the UN wants to see healthy children, safe schools, and a sound defense against internal threats.

    East vs. West

    What do you think?

    December 12, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  4. Jordan

    North Korean leaders are more intrested in developing the economy internally on their own terms based on their war experience with the western support for the South and protecting its interest with the necessary tools of the 21st century is a major component when it deems it fit to open up just like China did. If it continues like this, one should expect a strong and economically viable NK in the next 2 decades leaving behind many African nations that can not determine their left from the right.

    December 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    China wasn't amused by North Korea's rocket launch, but it didn't join the chorus of international condemnation. Beijing sees Pyongyang as an unruly teenager, but it doesn't want to be harsh on the leadership. It needs North Korea as a buffer zone against America's allies in the region. A reunited Korea is one thing Beijing doesn't want.

    December 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  6. Kyle

    International sanctions have proven to be a complete failure. Even if China starts applying more pressure on North Korea it would not significantly alter their agenda, as the article said North Korea is "one of the most economically isolated countries in the world. The international community cannot take any thing from North Korea, because it has few assets outside of the country.

    February 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Reply

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