A self-destructive gamble
North Korea has gained a reputation for being unruly and provocative. But it is going too far, even by its own standards. After detonating a device it claims was a hydrogen bomb on Jan. 6, Pyongyang notified a United Nations agency that it would launch what it called an “Earth observation satellite” between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25.
North Korea has used the launches as a way to test its long-range missile technology. It is flaunting to the world that it is capable of blasting off ballistic missiles with miniaturized nuclear warheads.
Given that the country’s renovated missile launcher at Tongchang-ri in North Pyongan Province near the northern border with China has been elevated to 67 meters (220 feet), experts believe North Korea is now capable of launching a long-range missile with an estimated range of 13,000 kilometers, outpacing the Unha-3 launched in 2012. If North Korea has mastered the technology to mount a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) nuclear warhead on a rocket capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, that’s a problem.
Moreover, Pyongyang was blunt enough to declare its intention while China’s chief representative in the six-party talks on denuclearization, Wu Dawei, was visiting the country. It is unlikely that the Chinese envoy will be able to talk Pyongyang out of firing the rocket. Unlike in October, when Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo, was in Pyongyang to attend the founding anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party, the North’s rocket plan is already in progress.
North Korea may think parading a hydrogen bomb and missile technology is the best means of propaganda ahead of the party convention in May. It is staking its relationship with its sole patron, China, by going ahead with the launch ahead of renewed UN Security Council resolutions after its fourth nuclear test. Even if it risks another international sanction, it would be sending a clear message to the world about its capabilities.
Such propaganda may work at home, but Pyongyang would be crossing a bridge of no return with the international community. The United States and Japan are likely to punish North Korea with separate sets of sanctions on top of UN actions. It will also lose help from Beijing and Moscow. Seoul will gain more support for the contentious U.S. antimissile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. North Korea will gain nothing but further seclusion. It must rethink its self-destructive gamble.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 4, Page 30