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.