WASHINGTON—North Korea could be using its increased missile range to impress its own citizens as much as adversaries and potential weapons buyers abroad, experts here say.
"The first political target" of Sunday's missile launch, touted as a successful satellite launch, "was clearly the domestic situation" in North Korea, Director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation Scott Snyder said.
It was timed to precede annual parliamentary meetings that opened in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Thursday, he added.
...This is a process that has something to do with the health of Kim Jong Il."
Jack Pritchard, KEI
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Snyder said the launch timing mirrors an earlier move set to coincide with a transfer of power to the North Korean regime’s current leader, Kim Jong Il.
“In 1998, we also saw that the Taepodong launch at that time was timed in advance of a Supreme People’s Assembly meeting in which Kim Jong Il formally took the reins of control over the various institutions in North Korea,” he said.
Kim in control?
Kim Jong Il at
Thursday's opening of the Supreme People's Assembly made his first major
official appearance since apparently suffering a stroke last August. He appeared noticeably thinner and grayer than before.
Legislators approved Kim as chairman of the National Defense Commission, reaffirming his status as North Korea's top leader in a ceremony that state television described as "a great honor and happiness for our military and people and a great happy event for all Korean people."
Kim Yong Nam, the country's number two leader, congratulated the North Korean dictator for building up the country's "invincible forces" and for the "successful" launch of a satellite.
Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), agreed that the launch was meant to reaffirm to North Korea’s citizens that Kim Jong Il’s power base is still fully intact, despite recent reports of his having suffered a stroke and official photos showing him looking noticeably frailer.
Pritchard said that North Korea’s military officials may have pushed for a test to measure the development of the country’s rocket program and to downplay Kim Jong Il’s apparent illness.
“I do think that for a good deal of the rationale, that the military and those around them said ‘We have got a program, we are still continuing our research and development. We are pretty close to the point where we would like to conduct this next test…And in doing so showing that our leader has recovered, this would be a tremendous boost to us,’” Pritchard said.
“They have put a great deal of emphasis on improving the status and the stature of North Korea and their first and foremost audience is their own people and the officials around that. This, which they obviously claim as a very successful event, gives them bragging rights among themselves,” he said.
Other experts suggested that the launch was meant to demonstrate improvements in North Korea’s missile technology to potential buyers, such as Iran.
The reclusive Stalinist regime is largely forced to operate outside of the global economy.
Selling this missile to Iran means revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more, as well as energy aid from Iran."
Bruce Bechtol, Marine Corps Command & Staff College
Bruce Bechtol, professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command & Staff College, said Iranian officials were present at the launch, as in previous launches.
He stressed the importance of how the test might be viewed in terms of Iran's willingness to invest in North Korean missile technology.
“Selling this missile to Iran means revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more, as well as energy aid from Iran,” he said.
Bechtol said that no amount of pressure would have delayed North Korea from testing the missile.
"If the North Koreans assessed that this missile was ready, they were going to launch it," Bechtol said.
"The potential gains from proliferation were simply too important for any delay.”
Bechtol warned that future test launches are "not only likely but imminent" in coming years, as the North Koreans further develop long-range missile technology.
KEI's Pritchard said the North Koreans viewed the launch as necessary in maintaining an avenue for economic gain through weapons sales.
“There’s a secondary element to this [launch] that has to do with earning hard currency, creating a viable and credible export commodity," Pritchard said.
He said that with North Korea having been long involved in technology transfer and missile shipments, the ability to invite potential customers to a launch and demonstrate it as a success would mean additional sales and cooperation in the future.
"That’s important in this particular environment where they are relatively isolated from the economic system of the world,” Pritchard said.
Dangers of proliferation
Both Bechtol and Pritchard warned against the threat an increased North Korean proliferation of weapons technology would pose to global stability.
Bechtol said North Korea has proliferated "almost every kind of ballistic missile in its inventory" to Iran since the 1980s and said any technological advancement in North Korean missile technology would "almost undoubtedly" end up there in the future.
"Any missile test by North Korea should be assessed not only for its potential should a missile be launched from the Korean landmass, but what it would mean if such a missile was launched from the Middle East, and whom it would threaten,” Bechtol said.
Pritchard said a real danger exists that North Korea will eventually perfect a miniaturized nuclear device that could fit on top of a delivery vehicle such as the missile it tested last week.
"That becomes…a technology that can be sold either to other countries or to non-state players—terrorists," Pritchard said.
"You can’t dismiss that as a possibility. As North Korea develops and finalizes their missile delivery system and the two parts come together, that’s a very dangerous situation," he said.
Reported and written by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Dan Southerland and Catherine Antoine.