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DPRK’s Satellite Launch: A Spiraling Tension Clouds East Asia

Dec 18 , 2012
  • Zhu Feng

    Director, Institute of International Studies, Nanjing University

North Korea’s satellite launch surprised the world on 12 December 2012. The surprise did not merely come from the frequency of rocket test by the most reclusive country in the world – the twice within the same year, a big contrast to its two previous tests during the time span of 11 years between 1998 and 2009, but from its self-contradicting performance – Pyongyang publicly acclaimed the put-off of launch on December 11 due to the technical overhaul for its delivering vehicle, and just one day later, its rocket blasting off. Upon the successful launch, North Korea is full of self-satisfaction air. Its propaganda machine runs in full gear to attribute the success to their leader Kim Jong Un, “a peerless great man identical to President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il, and a master of science and a great teacher”. However, the launch is not a prank at all, and quite few of North Korea watchers could take any easy breath for the moment.

North Korea’s success of delivering its satellite into the obit circling around the earth equally suggests that the country got to embrace the inter-continental ballistic missile technology. Given its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, theoretically, it seems that Pyongyang achieved its rocket breakthrough markedly over its de factor capability of strategic nuclear missile. Based on the already-measured shooting height of 500 kilometers, the rocket, if carrying on nuclear warhead, is supposed to fly as far as 10,000 kilometers. Therefore the shoot range would likely hit the U.S. However there is no evidence that Pyongyang has gained a lot to miniaturize its nuclear weapon, and no sign that the country would be able to develop a nuclear warhead for its long range missile soon. Even if North Korea can eventually tip nuclear warhead to its rocket, there remains a big question for its hitting precision and credible guiding technology. North Korea’s successful launching on December 12 should not lead to the conclusion that the country is speedily rushing to strategic nuclear missile capability. The rocket testing success can conceivably project its progress in long range rocket, but not necessarily means that Pyongyang would convincingly grab that capability.

In fact North Korea’s domestic situation can hardly afford that capability. This is an impoverished and sanction-battered country. According to the ROK’s estimate, Pyongyang had spent 2.8-3.2 billion USD in its rocketing R & D program, and future’s nuclear missile program will certainly be an endless money pitfall. As long as international sanctions tight up necking of the country financially and economically, there is rather little hope that North Korea could develop the credible, safe and effective strategic deterrent and heft. North Korean leaders need to crow over its big achievement, but can’t balloon up its power rhetorically. The rising threat of its nuclear missiles, if not exaggerated, is still on paper at most. Actually N. Korea’s self-boasted “astro-navigation power” is nothing but pompous. Notwithstanding, the launching is definitely bad and even dangerous.

The launching actually highlights North Korea’s inflexibility and rigidity to the legally desired abandonment of its nuclear weapons, and riles the international community which has been taking great efforts to fulfill denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula. The 6 Parties Talks, a multi-national mechanism designed to endorse the denuclearization, has been ominously stalled for 4 years. Pyongyang does not show its sincerity of negotiation for nuclear abandonment, and instead returns the international community with long range rocket testing. It is not only a reckless violation of UNSC Resolution of 1718 and 1874, which eminently ban the North from testing satellites and long-range rocket, but a fresh provocation. For its launching, Pyongyang deserves the UNSC condemnation statement on December 13. The launching, along with the unsolved nuclear impasse, has significantly aggravated the tension in the Korea Peninsula.

What is even the worse than the launching is that North Korea’s unchanged and chronic provocations. The international community assumes that Kim Jong Un regime of the DPRK could switch the course over to emphasizing the livelihood of this economically torn country. The launching strongly demonstrates that the regime is no different from his father’s one at all. Unless North Korea can virtually dismiss its provocation, it is entirely a wishful thinking that Pyongyang would take its nuclear abandonment for granted.

The crippling effect of North Korea’s rocket launching is spreading. The US, Korea and Japan are on the same page to ask for ever harsher punitive actions against North Korea via UN Security Council. Expectantly North Korea may well greet a new sanction UN resolution by testing one more nuclear bomb – a traditional trick of “ brinkmanship” which North Korea plays cunningly. But it will surely cause the spiraling escalation of tension in the region, and even risk tumbling inter-Korea ties down cliff. This dangerous trend would fatally damage the stability and peace of the Korea Peninsula. Even if the cycle of escalating tension could be avoided, how to deal with a ICBM technology-mastering North Korea, and roll back its ambition to a grave proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? The threat that North Korea imposes to the international community has never been bigger since its unchanged behavior, new ICBM technology and daunting nuclear weapon program remains. The murky prospect is clouding the East Asia.

Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of Center for International & Strategic Studies, Peking University 

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