In blatant defiance of stern warnings from the international community, North Korea fired a long-range rocket on Feb. 7. Although Pyongyang announced that the launch had put an earth observation satellite into orbit, critics argue that it was intended instead to perfect the technology needed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental United States.
The U.N. Security Council swiftly issued a strongly worded statement condemning Pyongyang’s provocation, and the U.S., South Korea, and Japan vowed to take strong retaliatory action. With tensions again rising on the Korean peninsula, China has only issued a guarded statement expressing regret, stopping short so far of openly criticizing Pyongyang
In an interview with RFA Korean Service reporter Changsop Pyon, Dr. Andrei Lankov, a noted Russian expert on North Korea, discusses Pyongyang’s rocket launch and the international response. Dr. Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, has authored several acclaimed books on North Korea, the latest of which is The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, published in 2013 by Oxford University Press.
RFA: Why do you think Pyongyang went ahead with its long-range rocket test despite strong warnings from the international community?
Lankov: I believe there are two major reasons. One is purely technical: the North Korean leadership is determined to continue to advance its missile program until they get reliable missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any part of the globe. In order to have such missiles, they have to do a lot of testing. Second, there is a political dimension. I am inclined to believe that this time the launch was largely for its domestic audience. The [ruling] Korean Workers Party Seventh Congress is approaching, and Kim Jong Un badly needs some successes to boast about.
RFA: Pyongyang announced it has succeeded in putting what it claims is a Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into its intended orbit. If that's true, what are the implications of such a success?
Lankov: Well, this seems to be true. The North Korean regime usually claims success after every launch, including the launches which ended in complete failure. However, this time the success has been confirmed by independent foreign observers, so it seems that they did put a satellite-like object into orbit. This means that the North has taken a serious step towards full-scale nuclear capability. This will definitely prompt the U.S. and other countries to improve their anti-missile defenses.
RFA: What do you think is the ultimate purpose of Pyongyang's long-range missile development? Do they want it simply as a deterrent, or as more of a bargaining chip?
Lankov: Both, I believe. From its inception, the North Korean nuclear and missile programs have performed a dual role, both as a deterrent and as a bargaining chip. Right now, they are less interested in bargaining, and see it as above all as a deterrent. But things might change if North Korea runs into another set of economic troubles.
RFA: Do you think the North has advanced its missile technology to the point that it can reach the U.S. continent at this point?
Lankov: I am not a missile scientist, and I cannot say anything certain on this topic. Nonetheless, from what I know from people who are real specialists, North Korea is not yet in a position to hit the continental U.S., even though sooner or later it is likely to indeed develop such capability. Right now there are two obstacles. First, the North Koreans have not tested a re-entry vehicle, a protected warhead that would descend to its target. So far, they have traveled only half-way. First, they have learned how to put an object into orbit, but they have yet to learn how to get it back. Second, they have simply not tested enough yet. They have had only two successful launches so far, and this is not enough.
RFA: As they have done in the past, the U.N. Security Council has adopted a strongly worded statement condemning North Korea's missile provocation, with the adoption of other sanctions likely in the near future. Do you think this can work this time?
Lankov: Of course not. North Koreans are not going to listen, as has always been the case. The sanctions will be introduced, I am pretty sure, but the efficiency of the sanctions is, to put it mildly, doubtful. The U.S. “secondary sanctions” are likely to be introduced soon, and are likely to hit the North Korean economy. But again, the North Korean leaders are not going to cancel their missile and nuclear programs simply because common North Koreans may have more difficult lives.
RFA: China has expressed regret over the launch, but hasn’t issued any strongly worded statement condemning Pyongyang. Only China can inflict real pain on North Korea. Will China do so this time? And if not, why not?
Lankov: China can indeed inflict real pain on North Korea. China can even can collapse North Korea if it decides to do so. However now, when relations between China and the U.S. are getting more and more tense, the Chinese have decided not to push North Korea too hard. China at the end of the day wants a stable and divided Korean Peninsula, and needs North Korea as a buffer zone to keep U.S. forces a bit farther away from China’s borders.
RFA: Seoul and Washington have agreed to start talks on the potential deployment of THAAD [missile defense] in a show of strong deterrence against Pyongyang's missile provocation. Do you believe THAAD can work as a deterrent to discourage Pyongyang from further provocations?
Lankov: Of course not, and this is not the intention. There are two goals behind the possible and, indeed likely, THAAD deployment. The first is plain security. If North Koreans strike the South, THAAD will hopefully prevent their missiles from hitting their targets. Second, this is a way to pressure the Chinese, who are not happy about the growth of the U.S. anti-missile systems. The hope is that China, being unhappy, will discourage North Korea from further launches. However, I do not see this as a realistic expectation.
RFA: Do you think North Korea's missile test has resulted in accelerating Seoul and Washington's introduction of THAAD, given Seoul's wavering and reluctance because of China's strong objections?
Lankov: Yes, this seems to be the case. As I have said, China is dead-set against THAAD, and for a while the South Koreans were careful not to offend China. However, now they are less inclined to care about such issues. Actually, it seems that the North Korean nuclear test and missile launches have driven a wedge between China and South Korea, and have effectively contributed towards improvement of relations between South Korea and the United States.
RFA: The White House has harshly criticized Pyongyang's launch with a strong warning. As you know, the North is under both U.S. and U.N. sanctions. What additional measures or sanctions can the U.S. take at this point?
Lankov : It seems clear that the U.S. is going to finally introduce the so-called financial sanctions. In a nutshell, this means that all foreign banks working with North Korea will be banned from cooperating with U.S. banks. Since cooperation with U.S. banks is absolutely vital for any banking institution worldwide, the assumption is that no bank would ever touch North Korean money, and hence North Korean companies will be unable to do most of their normal financial transactions.
RFA: As you know, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently passed a bill targeting North Korea that was passed earlier by the U.S. House of Representatives. If this is passed together with a secondary boycott clause by the full Senate, it will have far-reaching effects on those entities in third countries like China that are involved in trading with North Korea. Do you think this new legislation, if enforced, can really make China apply more pressure on North Korea?
Lankov: No, as I have already said. China will be annoyed both with North Korea and with the U.S., but will do little if anything. They are not happy about economic problems or about THAAD, but keeping the Korean Peninsula divided and stable is their major priority.
RFA: Seoul has already reaffirmed its resolve to take tough retaliatory action against Pyongyang. For example, do you think Seoul should shut down the Kaesung Industrial Complex?
Lankov: Yes, this seems possible, even though I believe that it would be a big mistake
RFA: As a result of Pyongyang's recent nuclear and missile provocations, it seems that inter-Korean relations have no hope of improving, at least during the term of Park Geun-hye’s government in South Korea. Do you agree?
Lankov: Until the last nuclear test, I had the expectation that relations between two Korean states would improve a bit this year. But now it is clear that this is not going to happen. And it seems possible that the next South Korean government, if it’s a conservative government, will follow the same line.
RFA: Given Kim Jong Un's nuclear as well as missile provocations since he took office three years ago, it looks like he's given up any effort to improve relations with the outside world. What’s your take on this?
Lankov: He still wants to have better relations which, for him, means more aid coming from overseas. The problem is that he is not willing to compromise on the missile and nuclear issue, which he sees as the key to regime survival. So, he would like to have both nuclear weapons and thriving economic cooperation with the outside world. But if he has to choose, his choice is clear: he prefers nuclear weapons over economic improvements.