[VIEWPOINT]Saving face is a gambleFinally, North Korea went ahead with the test-firing of a long-range missile. North Korea experimented with firing medium-range Scud missiles from launching pads in Gittaeryong, Ahnbyun county, Gangwon province, and a long-range missile thought to be the Taepodong-2 from Musudan-ri in North Hamkyung province on Tuesday from 3:32 a.m. onward.
Even the Chinese government sent a message expressing its concern over a crisis that could be brought to the Korean Peninsula if the North dared to fire a missile, but North Korea ignored the concerns of international society. It made a rude gesture to international society and the United States by firing missiles on the independence day of the United States.
There is no way for us to find out the reason that North Korea fired not only a long-range missile, but also many short-range missiles simultaneously. Considering the situation North Korea is in now, it seems that the leaders there probably thought that gambling with missiles would bring the country more benefits than losses for the maintenance of its system. And another thing clear is that the chances the North Korea will fire more missiles, as threatened by the Foreign Ministry spokesman of North Korea, are high.
So what effects would there have been on the North Korea system if the North had heeded warnings against firing the missiles? The country would have lost face. International society, led by the United States and including China and Russia, put pressure on the North to suspend the firing. If the North had bowed to that pressure, the leadership of North Korea would have given the impression that it succumbed to international pressure.
There is a strong possibility that the North may have taken it seriously when the former U.S. secretary of defense, William J. Perry, called for a pre-emptive strike on the North Korean missile launching pad. The remarks of a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, Ashton B. Carter, that North Korea would have no excuse for retaliation even if it were hit by a pre-emptive strike, probably struck a nerve in North Korea.
Firing many Scud and Rodong missiles together with the new long-range missile is related to the North’s intention to threaten South Korea, which has showed off its retaliatory military capabilities, with missiles.
Through missile gambling, North Korea might have expected to gain a few benefits in connection with guarantees of its system. First, the country may have wanted to send the word that it had completed its nuclear weapons systems to both domestic and foreign audiences. Since the country announced its possession of nuclear weapons on Feb. 10, 2005, it may have thought that showing the world its capabilities in missile technology, the means for the delivery of nuclear weapons, would make everyone acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power.
It seems that North Korea wanted to show international society that it has the capability to prevent a tragedy like the one met by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Second, it may have wanted to convince North Koreans that the system in the country is stable and will persist. In the midst of a persistent economic crisis, some analysts believe that increased contact with outside world, especially South Korea, has led to loss of loyalty in North Korean society.
Third, North Korea may have expected to counteract the omni-directional pressure from the United States, such as on counterfeiting and human rights violations in North Korea, by making missiles a strategic card to play against the United States.
On the other hand, North Korea may have factored in the pressure it is facing from international society, including the United States and Japan, as well as the burden and pain on its effort to maintain its political system that the firings may trigger in the North Korea policy of China and South Korea. Clearly the pain from firing missiles will go straight to the North Korean people rather than the country’s elite. In other words, North Korea has gambled, using its own people as hostages.
The long-range missile that was the biggest factor in the current crisis exploded in the ocean only 42 seconds after it was fired. If this was to have been a test of the missile’s long-range capability, the mishap could be seen as a failure. But it could have been an experiment with other technologies.
Whether or not it was a failure, the ball is now in the courts of the American, Chinese and Korean governments. Whether North Korea’s missile gambling is to be a “suicide goal” of North Korea or a “strategic goal” depends on whether South Korea and international society form a consensus and cooperate with each other. We must not let North Korea’s gambling with its people as hostages succeed. The government must reconsider its North Korea policy in view of the North’s provocations, and make the missile gamble a suicide pact for North Korea by cooperating with international society as a member of the United Nations.
* The writer is a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Baek Soung-joo