[Viewpoint] Not quite a success, nor a failureAs expected, North Korea finally launched its ballistic missile or “multistage rocket.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, like the North’s atomic weapon test, the result was unclear - and no wonder. Launching a multistage missile is very much like trying to fire off one missile in the right direction with another missile resting on top. It is much more difficult than most people realize.
The good news is we have been spared the diplomatic drama that would have ensued had the rocket failed and crashed into northern Japan or if debris had fallen from Japanese skies. For long-range missile or rocket tests, North Korea is essentially a land-locked country. It must send its projectiles over another nation’s airspace.
As such, it’s worth pondering what could have happened had Sunday’s launch gone seriously wrong, since future launches are likely.
For example, if the first booster had failed and pushed the second booster and payload on to the wrong trajectory, into the general vicinity of Japan, rather than in a high and safe flight path over that nation, Japan’s Self Defense Forces would have been compelled to unleash their anti-missile defenses.
Given that North Korea is the closest Japan has for a stated enemy, had there been falling large debris, for the SDF not to have taken action would likely have created greater political havoc in Tokyo than whatever damage may have taken place in northern Honshu.
And regardless of whether the Japanese actually hit the rocket, by Pyongyang’s reckoning, Japan would have committed “an act of war.”
This is the kind of drama we were spared - at least for now.
Had missile failure resulted in debris landing in Japan, it is doubtful North Korea could have admitted that its missile test had been a failure and it is possible that Tokyo may have refused to admit its anti-missile system had failed to hit anything. In such a scenario, it would have been easier politically for both nations to share a disputed myth.
That is, in Pyongyang’s version, Japan would have shot down a peaceful satellite launch, thereby proving its hostile intent toward the peace-loving North Korean people. In the Japanese version, Tokyo would have reluctantly authorized the successful shooting down of an errant missile, though some of the debris crashed into Japan.
But on Sunday, we witnessed a questionably successful launch. The rocket parts did not crash in any nation’s territory, but the announced satellite, according to American and South Korean authorities, did not achieve orbit. In any case, the United States and its allies must now recognize a ratcheting up of potential nuclear proliferation, regardless of whether the payload was a dummy weapon or a failed satellite.
It appears Kim Jong-il timed the launch to coincide with the G-20 summit, seemingly to prove to other nations that North Korea matters. And while this may in part be so, his primary audience was his own people.
With South Korea having essentially taken the position of giving no more unconditional aid without improvement in nuclear disarmament and human rights, Pyongyang has probably faced severe political stress within its leadership.
The legitimacy of Kim Jong-il’s rule, in spite of his government’s systemic failures, is premised on him doing an incredible job with few resources, surrounded by a hostile world. Indeed, without this weekend’s kind of provocation, the rest of the world would ignore the backwater nation. So Sunday offered a special opportunity to generate a reaction that may play particularly well back in North Korea.
To prove to the North Korean people the Pyongyang leadership is competent to continue to rule, it is essential for the ruling oligarchy to pique the concern and possibly the outrage of at least some of the G-20 leaders. Actually, one may argue that the stronger and more negative the response from other nations, the better it would be for Pyongyang.
What I find comical is that many North Korea watchers take the position that an overblown response would likely jeopardize the six-party talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program.
While the world should not overreact, we still need to take an honest account of what is really at stake.
Given the current overall situation, the DPRK’s fanatical designs to unify the peninsula under its regime are actually more plausible than the stated aims of the talks.
Given Sunday’s launch, Pyongyang has added one more thing to be negotiated (read: be bribed) for it to give up without relinquishing its sole ace card, its nuclear weapons program.
In short, the missile launch underscores North Korea’s modus operandi of creating new negotiating issues to collect foreign aid. More than ever, the other five nations of the six-party talks should ask themselves the following:
One, how willing are they to continue to engage in this kind of blackmail?
And two, what other options are there besides participating in a scheme where the other party works to further set back the goal posts?
Until these questions are thoroughly answered, all reactions and responses are more likely to be more drama than substance.
Finally, if I may make a suggestion to Pyongyang: Considering that this seems to be the second failed satellite built to broadcast songs in praise of Kim Il Sung, perhaps they may do better by taking a page out of the 1977 U.S. Voyager 1 spacecraft playbook. Next time, they should consider playing Chuck Berry. Instead of America’s selection of “Johnny B. Goode,” commission the aging rocker to record “Roll Over Great Leader.” With some better vibes, they just might rocket their next satellite out of this world.
The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting, a technology sales and marketing firm (www.softlandingkorea.com).
by Tom Coyner