Monday, September 22, 2014
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North Korea’s Blackmail Missile

TOKYO – The Unha-3 rocket launched from Sohae in North Korea on the morning of December 12 passed through Japanese air space over the island of Okinawa 12 minutes later, and crashed into the Pacific Ocean roughly 300 kilometers east of the Philippines. The launch could be considered a mild surprise, because South Korean intelligence sources had suggested that it had been canceled.

More surprising was the success of the launch, which makes North Korea the tenth member of the world’s “Space Club” (the ninth member was Iran, which successfully launched its Safir rocket in 2008). The Unha-3, a three-stage rocket weighing 92 tons, follows the Unha-2, which failed spectacularly in 2009, so the evident progress that North Korea has made in its missile technology in such a short period has shocked governments around the world.

The United Nations Security Council responded by debating a resolution on strengthening sanctions against North Korea. Only China – no surprise – opposed new sanctions, stressing that “actions that heighten tension on the Korean Peninsula should not be taken.” China has agreed to Security Council resolutions against Iran on several occasions, but it has backed sanctions against North Korea on only two, both coming after the North conducted nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009).

China’s leaders oppose stiffer sanctions against North Korea for a simple reason: they fear the frailty of Kim Jong-un’s regime more than they fear the international security consequences of the missile launch. Above all, China wants to prevent the regime’s collapse, which it fears may result from stricter sanctions.

If the Kim regime timed the missile launch to have a direct impact on elections in nearby Japan and South Korea, it may have succeeded merely in boosting support for defense-oriented conservative parties. Indeed, although it is difficult to say how large an impact the launch had on the result in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (of which I am a member, serving as Deputy Chair of the election campaign) won a landslide victory. Although Park Geun-hye’s victory in South Korea, where she became the country’s first-ever female president, followed a campaign mainly focused on domestic economic issues, North Korea’s missile-guided brinkmanship probably shifted many undecided voters to the security-minded Park’s camp.

So, given the seemingly negative impact of the launch on neighboring South Korea and Japan, why didn’t the North hold its fire? Some suggest that North Korean leaders were determined to stage the launch before the first anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power on December 17. Others suggest that the North Koreans prefer conservatives in power in Seoul and Tokyo, because a more robust vision of national defense in Japan and South Korea will antagonize China, which, isolated in East Asia, will then be more likely to maintain its support for the Kim regime. After all, China’s small list of friends in Asia became even smaller in 2012, given Myanmar’s democratic transition.

So, in Kim’s perverse logic, a new push for UN sanctions, and new security-conscious governments in Japan and South Korea, will strengthen North Korea’s hold on Chinese foreign policy. Thus, the missile launch can be viewed as an indication of how threatened the Kim dynasty feels: the regime appears to believe that it must blackmail its closest ally in order to maintain its support.

The primary cause of the regime’s fears is growing political uncertainty, which is the direct result of the failing health of Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s aunt and the power behind the throne. Indeed, keen observers of North Korea suggest that Kim Jong-un ordered the missile launch as a way to strengthen his grip on power while he still has the experienced and ruthless Kim Kyong-hui’s backing. Without it, the Kim dynasty’s hold on power would almost certainly weaken, given Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience, plunging the country into chaos.

One seemingly obscure political move last month – the appointment of Jang Sung-taek (Kim Kyong-hui’s husband) as the chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission – suggests that Kim Kyong-hui’s ill health is already having an impact on the regime. Although no modern state would do so, the Sports Guidance Commission comprises the regime’s most powerful members. Jang’s move to the post strongly suggests that the internal struggle for power is already heating up.

North Korea’s missile launch, coming amid the internal uncertainty arising from Kim Kyong-hui’s failing health, creates an extremely dangerous situation for the international community. Only by strengthening UN sanctions to such an extent that North Korea is forced to abandon its missiles and nuclear weapons – and China to reconsider its knee-jerk support – can the regime be dissuaded from further, and more ominous, maneuvering.

But, given China’s continuing opposition to further sanctions, there is scant hope of this happening. Until China puts its responsibilities as a modern global power ahead of its narrow national interests, the danger from North Korea will grow as the Kim regime becomes ever more unstable.

Read more from our "Asia's Perturbed Peninsula" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedDennis Argall

    Indeed, fear of the frailty of the regime [Yuriko Koike] and consigned to the margins of international legitimacy [S Mahmud Ali]. Locked in the broom closet of Asia for so long. Where are the policies to reduce frailty, to draw back from the margins of legitimacy, to open the broom closet and achieve some normalisation?

    The western perspective is poisoned by notions of and easy journalistic presentation of craziness in the DPRK, without thoughtful engagement with the extent to which the DPRK has been more threatened by nuclear weapons than any other non-nuclear country and has been confronted also by lots of breaches of the Armistice Agreement too. No, not angels, but not the only devils in the mix.

    We don't get sane outcomes by closing in on proud and isolated people.

    Nixon got to break through the US containment of China in 1971-2 as a conservative, ending decades of total US prohibition of dealings with China. Hopefully the new President Park in the ROK can make some parallel breakthrough with the DPRK.

    I suspect that only Koreans will solve this; the rest of us are not as smart and we count for so much less. In 1975 I accompanied the then Australian foreign minister on an historic visit to both Pyongyang and Seoul. The heads of the Asia departments of the two foreign ministries, Mr O and Mr Ah, resembled each other in many ways. When the one in Seoul asked me what it was like in the north, I said: "we were received very warmly, they are Koreans." To which he replied: "But they are not human!" Hopefully such views are now gone between Koreans, but they are still evident in wider western perspectives.

  2. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Ms Koike is to be commended for engaging international attention on to the risks apparent from the DPRK's ballistic missile programme, said to be represented by the Unha-3 SLV launch on December 12. Pyongyang is the source of much understandable anxiety, especially for those powers which have benefited enormously from the systemic status quo and the US-led international order. Japan, especially when led by Ms. Koike's current political party, the LDP, is a staunch proponent of this order. So, her comments are not revolutionary.

    North Korea, fashioned on the sanguinary collective memory of Japan's pre-1945 colonial rule and the violent see-saw of the Korean War, and consigned to the margins of international legitimacy since the Armistice, has never felt secure. Treated as an illegitimate pariah, denied the equality it has longed for to be shared with the ROK, surrounded by hostile forces much more sophisticated and lethal than its own manpower-heavy defences, and constrained by the imbalance between the capacity and will of its handful of patrons and those of its many critics, Pyongyang's debilitating and implicitly brutal "military first" domestic dispensation is a function of a defensively neurotic - even perhaps occasionally psychopathic - elite seeking to survive and continue its rule in the face of logically insuperable challenges. The nuclear deterrent and the ballistic-missile delivery systems are an insurance policy against what is considered a very likely decapitating first-strike, or its long-range precision-strike conventional equivalent, hatched by a perennially hostile proximate coalition and an absence of reliable allies.

    Two corollaries: Pyongyang's apparently extra-rational conduct can be explained by the elite's profound insecurities. These cannot be addressed with threats of the application of massive and lethal force; Pyongyang has called too many bluffs to know where the lines actually lie - especially now that its enemies cannot be certain of what the DPRK's rulers will do with their nuclear warheads (miniaturised or not) if hostile forces mounted an attack. Its existential deterrent has granted the DPRK an expanded strategic space in which to flaunt its stuff.

    With its frequently muscular naval and joint exercises close to the DPRK's spatial domain, Japan has contributed to the sharpening of Pyongyang's survivalist instincts. Continuing with the same policy and expecting different outcomes may appear to be politically expedient, but is unlikely to change the broad pattern of behaviour, or indeed the insecurity dynamics across Northeast Asia.

    Secondly, the two halves of Korea were creatures of their superpower patrons for decades since the Partition, both run by repressive, non-representative, unpopular dictators. Without sustained US military, economic, scientific-technical and diplomatic support and assistance, the ROK may not have looked anything like it does today. Even today, the ROK would likely feel quite defenceless if foreign forces were withdrawn from its soil.

    Bereft of comparable assistance from the Soviet Union and China, the DPRK has had to rely far more on its own resources and frequently-barbarous imagination. Pushing such an insecure regime further into a strategic corner with perennial threats is unlikely to make it change its stance towards the world. Sanctions have not worked for half a century; frequent and regular displays of the force arrayed against it has not either. Still, that seems to be the preferred option among the DPRK's powerful critics.

    Ms Koike appears to suggest that maintaining these same failed policies will somehow generate more benign outcome. With her party back in power in Tokyo, and the LDP's allies elected to office in Seoul, she is likely to have an opportunity to implement this formulation quite soon.

    History and logic appear to challenge her assumptions.

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