The Little Rocket That Couldn’t
Actually, it wasn’t little enough. The rocket that North Korea attempted to launch last week had the size to lob a nuclear payload as far as North America – a much larger size than would be necessary for its ostensible cargo, a weather satellite. Thus the preemptory hand-wringing and threats by the United States, South Korea, Japan, and other allies.
As with many issues involving North Korea, the rationale behind the launch is baffling. North Korea had just signed an agreement with the U.S., trading nuclear weapons scale-backs and monitoring permissions for food to feed its chronically hungry people (among whom are the military, even though they’re at the head of the food chain). There’s a new Super-Duper Leader – Kim Jong Un, son and grandson of the previous Super-Duper Leaders – who might serve as an excuse to nudge his country into the outermost ring of global citizenship.
But no. Full speed ahead with the Unha-3! And more, let’s make it a national extravaganza! Serendipity – it can coincide with the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the prolonged mourning of Kim Jong Il’s death, and the ascension of Kim Jong Un! The launch could be the capstone of a nation-wide party, complete with athletic contests and symphonies! And let’s invite international journalists!
The festivities happened; a successful launch didn’t. Within a minute or so of lift-off, Unha-3 broke apart and tumbled into the Yellow Sea.
As I draft this entry (a few days before I’ll post it), there’s yet no response from North Korea. Basically, its government is doing the ‘Who Me’? – ignoring the issue altogether (it finally released a statement, for domestic consumption, that the weather satellite did not achieve successful orbit – it spared the citizenry the humiliating details). The United States government is doing the ‘Duh’ – saying not much because it hasn’t come to a consensus about what the whole episode signifies.
From the U.S. standpoint:
* The fact that the rocket failed is a good thing because North Korea has not yet shown the ability to fling nukes at Palo Alto.
* The fact that the rocket failed changes nothing, as it shows (once more) that North Korea is not a ‘rational actor’ when it comes to international agreements.
* The fact that the rocket failed makes it more likely that North Korea will soon set off an underground bomb, just to show that it’s still got nuclear chops. Thus:
* The fact that the launch occurred when the technology evidently was still shaky suggests that North Korea had a motive other than showing it could bomb far-away targets – such as selling its nuclear technology on the black and gray markets (a goal undermined by the rocket’s failure, one would think) or simply giving the finger to its perceived enemies.
* The fact that the launch happened when North Korea’s semi-ally Iran is under major pressure about its own nuclear program could signify an odd type of solidarity display – or an equally odd attempt at fraternal one-upsmanship.
* The fact that the launch was designed to be the lynchpin of a countrywide patriotic festival suggests that the real powers-that-be felt impelled to shore up the obscure grandson’s legitimacy.
From the North Korean standpoint:
* Who in the hell knows?
We do know that the hoopla surrounding the fiasco included truly awesome displays of orchestrated pink pom-poms in Pyongyang’s public squares, which may be reason enough for almost anything. Although it must be said that the recent public lamentations for the dead Dear Leader are hard to beat. (Nomenclature alert: the first Kim was the Great Leader; the second Kim was the Dear Leader; the third Kim has yet to be gifted with a permanent affectionate sobriquet. “Brilliant Comrade,” “Dear Young General,” and “Great Successor” have been tested, without apparent success.) And then there’s the unveiling of gargantuan bronze statues of the departed dynastic heroes, snazzy examples of the oversized totalitarian sculptural art that is becoming less and less common in today’s political aesthetics. (Unfortunately, the Dear Leader is not wearing his signature Ralph Kramden bus-driver jacket.) A swell video of the unveiling, including the pom-poms and mass wreath laying, is available at the unintentionally hilarious official Korean Central News Agency site: www.kcna.kp/ goHome.do?lang=eng
Despite Republican snipes about how whatever the U.S. has done or may do re North Korea exposes the pitifully naïve state of the current President’s foreign policy, this administration’s stance does not differ much from the former administration’s stance. One reason, I suspect, is pressure from important East Asian allies (South Korea, Japan, maybe also Taiwan and the Philippines) who actually are in the clunky North Korean ICBMs’ line of fire. Another reason may be our complicated relationship with China.
China is North Korea’s biggest (and maybe only significant) supporter. At one time, the reasons were largely ideological, but now they appear to be largely practical. The collapse of North Korea would mean a huge influx of refugees into Northern China, which that country neither wants nor can afford (refugee influx is also one of South Korea’s major concerns). It’s in China’s economic interest to keep North Korea a (barely functioning) sovereign state.
And it’s in the United States’ interest to keep relationships with China functional. China needs to signal (and maybe it already has, through non-publicized diplomatic channels) how big a stink it can handle about North Korea’s weapons programs. And for that matter, about the Hermit Kingdom’s weapons and weapons-related-technology sales in general. China is a very big country and has its own far-flung pockets of resistance, some of which have been linked to whatever remains of Al Qaeda. It doesn’t want militant Islamic separatists in Xinjiang, for example, to have North-Korean-made nuclear weapons, no matter how rudimentary those weapons may be.
The same could be said for Russia. Its far-eastern regions are within striking distance of even the most lethargically SCUD-like North Korean missiles; more important are militantly dissident areas like Chechnya, which certainly are likely markets for black market nuclear technology and materials. So the United States and its allies might have common interests with Russia and China regarding North Korea.
Pursuing these interests may also help with a more immediate problem (for the U.S.), which is the specter of a nuclear Iran. At the moment, Russia and China are not being particularly helpful in this regard (helpful to nations that see a nuked-up Iran as a real threat – economic, political, territorial). North Korea’s predictably episodic nuclear belligerence, brought front and center by the launch of Unha-3, may work as a mutual-interest preliminary talking point that could lead to some sort of deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
So missiles fall into the sea. Diplomatic relationships are on hold or on the QT. Pink pom-poms do the wave. Effigies bigger than Thanksgiving Parade balloons materialize. Who knows, at this point, what the little rocket that couldn’t has accomplished?