NK Missile - Threat or Flop?

Kim Jong Il may not have placed a satellite into orbit, but his missile launch has played well domestically, given him the initiative, and exposed divisions at the U.N. Security Council.

2009.04.06
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NK-rocket-Yonhap-305.jpg Screenshot from a video of Eunha-2 rocket, blasting off its Musudan-ri launching site, released on the official (North) Korean Central TV on April 7, 2009.
Yonhap News Agency

North Korea’s missile launch may look like a dud, or a flop, to some in the Western world. But to North Korea’s elite, the launch could be seen as a sign that the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is firmly in control of his country and even strengthening his position.

The U.S. military, Japan, and South Korea say that North Korea clearly failed to fire a satellite into orbit as it had publicly announced it would do.

Space experts and U.S. officials say that North Korea launched a three-stage Taepodong-2 rocket on Sunday. The first stage landed in the Sea of Japan and the second stage in the Pacific Ocean, as expected.

The first meeting of the 12th Session of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly will be held on April 9.  This may mark Chairman Kim Jong Il’s “third term” in office, and a “third stage” of his regime.  Since his position as National Defense Commission chairman was declared “the highest post of the state” in 1998, he has been ruling as the supreme leader of North Korea.  His goal is to build a “powerful and prosperous nation,” and the rocket launch is showing the people that the time of North Korean greatness is upon them. »

Ko Young Hwan,  served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Korea from 1978 to 1991 when he defected.

But the third stage, reported by North Korea to be carrying a satellite, failed to send its payload into space and instead crashed into the Pacific, according to the experts and U.S. military officers tracking the launch.

Despite considerable tracking evidence to the contrary, North Korea claims that it fired a satellite into orbit, and that this is now broadcasting tunes to the universe that memorialize Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung. And, some analysts believe, this may play well in North Korea.

Nationalistic pride

“There will be a lot of nationalistic pride and the regime will take credit for that …,” said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in an interview with AFP.

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said that North Korea may have called the missile firing a peaceful satellite launch in order to minimize international repercussions. It would be a mistake to call the launch a failure, though, he said.

“It was a success in the sense of increasing their missile capabilities…,” Klingner said in an interview. “They’ve also been successful in gaining the initiative and the upper hand in negotiating leverage with the U.S. And they’ve certainly exposed the division amongst the other five parties in the six-party talks."

The missile that North Korea launched on Sunday reached much farther than two previous missiles tested by the North Koreans. In 2006, a Taepodong-2 missile crashed 40 seconds after being launched.

The United Nations Security Council met in emergency session on Sunday afternoon to consider U.S. and Japanese calls for a strong resolution condemning the North Korean launch of a long-range rocket.

But ambassadors from China and Russia were reported to have resisted the idea of issuing any such resolution.

“The Chinese,” said Bruce Klingner, “are trying to turn a blind eye to North Korea’s violation of the two U.N. resolutions that were passed in 2006, and [this] is really calling into question the perception that some had of China as a responsible stakeholder.”

The Russians, said Klingner, “always come down on the side of North Korea and China, and even though China plays the lead in defending North Korea, Russia is sort of the silent partner on that side.”

nk-missile-tv-305.jpg
Despite failing to deliver its satellite the blast-off was trumpeted by the communist state media. KCNA TV, via AFP
KCNA TV, via AFP
Ko Young Hwan, a North Korean defector and senior researcher at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), said that Sunday’s rocket launch sends a message to the North Korean people that “the country is now strong” and must be taken seriously by the world.

According to Ko, a former North Korean diplomat, the launch will be presented to the North Korean people as a “tremendous achievement” that will most probably enhance Kim Jong Il’s legitimacy in the short term.

But Ko added that North Korea’s claim to have sent a satellite into space could not be supported by the facts. A satellite transmitter capable of broadcasting a signal from orbit would have to weigh more than the payload that appeared to be attached to Sunday’s rocket, he said.

Written by Dan Southerland. Original reporting by Joshua Lipes in Washington DC and Song-wu Park in Seoul.

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