As North Korea gears up to launch a long-range rocket, political changes are afoot, too: Pyongyang has consolidated its succession process, giving a new title to its new leader, Kim Jong Un, who came to power in December after his father’s death.
The rocket launch, which could come as early as Thursday in North Korea, has been condemned by the international community as being in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. So why now?
Amid ceremony, Workers Party delegates have been meeting in Pyongyang to bestow an official title on their new 20-something leader. Kim Jong Un is now first secretary of the Workers Party, cementing his hold on power. And North Korea is gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.
For Whose Consumption?
Rudiger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna, says that anniversary is the main reason for the rocket launch.
“I think we shouldn’t really misunderstand everything the North Koreans do as a signal sent to us. In a way we could picture this rocket launch as a gigantic firework to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, which I think is by far the largest holiday they ever had,” Frank says. “Of course this has to be marked with something new and great and impressive.”
The regime has taken the unusual step of inviting journalists to the launchpad to see the rocket. The North Koreans insist it’s for peaceful purposes, carrying a weather satellite.
But the rest of the world fears this is another step toward creating an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Baek Seung-joo is with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
“In my opinion, North Korea’s launching a rocket for military purpose. Its objective is not to launch a satellite into orbit, but to extend their missile range,” Baek says.
International condemnation of the launch has been widespread and harsh. But this could actually bolster the young leader’s position, according to Sheen Seung-ho from Seoul National University.
“This very negative reaction from the outside world can even enhance the legitimacy of the very fragile regime,” Sheen says. “If after the missile launch, there is very strong pressure from the outside world, it will rather consolidate Kim Jong Un’s political position within his own domestic society.”
Success Of Past Provocations
Pyongyang announced the launch just 16 days after what’s being called the Leap Day Agreement, when the U.S. agreed to give Pyongyang 240,000 tons of food aid. The North agreed to stop nuclear and long-range missile tests. Now, the deal is dead. So what went wrong?
Victor Cha, a former Bush administration security adviser now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, blames ineptitude.
“It’s pretty clear that the North Koreans believe that a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile test. It’s pretty clear that the United States believe that those two things went together,” Cha says. “They just didn’t agree, and for some reason, both sides walked away believing they had an agreement. That might be a definition of ineptitude on both sides.”
There are some signs that North Korea could, like in the past, follow its rocket launch with an underground nuclear test, which would be its third. Cha points out that in the past, such provocations have won Pyongyang condemnation, followed by the negotiations they were seeking.
“This, if you look, has been a relatively successful strategy,” Cha says, referring to a study by his group that reviewed major North Korean provocations since the 1980s. “Since the mid-1980s, it takes on average about five months for the U.S. to re-engage with North Korea after they do a provocation.”
As North Koreans prepare to remember Kim Il Sung, their “Eternal President,” their new leader is now in place — in title at least. Regardless of the success of the rocket launch, the danger is that nobody knows how much control Kim Jong Un has. And nobody knows whether he is still following the old playbook.