What the North Koreans intended as a long-range, three-stage rocket flight sputtered ignominiously when the rocket broke apart and fell into the Yellow Sea less than two minutes after its launch yesterday. The regime in Pyongyang claims the rocket was supposed to place a satellite into orbit to celebrate the 100th birthday of North Korea’s deified former leader Kim Il Sung.
Instead, the failed launch symbolized the inefficacy of North Korea’s economic and political system and the crash of brief hopes that the recent change in the country’s leadership might lead to rapprochement with South Korea and the United States.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) rocket launch also kills the short-lived Feb. 29 agreement in which the US government promised a quarter of a million tons of “nutritional assistance” (foodstuffs not likely to be diverted to the North Korean military) if the North Koreans would temporarily curtail some aspects of their missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Many observers saw this agreement as a test of the possibility that new ruler Kim Jung Un might take a different path than his father: seeking North Korean prosperity and security by trading away the nuclear weapons program in exchange for an improved political relationship and expanded economic cooperation with Pyongyang’s avowed enemies. Mr. Kim failed that test.
This episode also tarnished Beijing, which managed once again to appear both devious and useless. The Chinese seem capable and willing when it comes to sheltering North Korea diplomatically and economically from the consequences of poor international citizenship. China consistently tries to bargain down United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang and then undercuts those sanctions through deepening trade with and investment in the DPRK.
On the other hand, however, China lacks either the capability or the willingness to persuade North Korea not to carry out frightening acts such as missile launches and nuclear weapons tests.
Clearly, the biggest loser is the Kim Jong Un regime. Kim has been plagued by doubts about his leadership capabilities since taking the place of his deceased father as paramount leader in the last days of 2011. The curious sequence of events leading up to the rocket launch, which seemed to indicate a lack of coordination between competing domestic agendas, raised questions about the Kim government’s ability to pursue a coherent foreign policy.
First, Kim threw away the Feb. 29 American offer of food aid. And then Pyongyang’s announcement of an impending rocket launch contributed to a surprise victory on Apr. 11 in South Korea’s legislative elections by the conservative ruling coalition, which takes a tougher line on North Korea than the main opposition party.
The botched launch is a huge embarrassment to the regime. A young man in a culture that reveres age and experience, a hastily proclaimed four-star general with no military experience – Kim’s sole qualification is that he is the grandson of Kim Il Sung and the son of Kim Jong Il.
This makes him useful as a legitimizing front man for the cabal of his father’s relatives and trusted friends that really runs the country. But if, however, there is a subterranean leadership struggle, Kim Jong Un’s failure to properly honor his grandfather with the rocket launch will not strengthen his mandate to rule the country.
DPRK propaganda can claim Washington is the villain in this scenario because the Americans reneged on the Feb. 29 agreement. However, this argument will hardly overturn widespread global sentiment that the Pyongyang regime is despicable and dangerous.
Pyongyang has argued that yesterday’s launch involved a civilian rocket, not a ballistic missile (forbidden by a 2009 UN Security Council resolution). Only a few observers bought that argument. The United States and many other governments took the position that the satellite launch was tantamount to a missile test. Even Russia, which has been almost as soft on Pyongyang as China, had called on North Korea not to go ahead with the launch.
After a period of provocations in 2010, Pyongyang made clear in 2011 its desire to resume negotiations with the US, although most analysts suspected the objective was to press for more concessions (such as economic handouts and recognition as a nuclear weapons state) and not to bargain away its nuclear weapons program. The unsuccessful launch increases the chances that Pyongyang will return to its provocation mode.
The American sense is that the North Koreans have just exhibited extraordinarily bad faith by concluding an agreement they planned to sabotage a few days later. Instead of a fresh start with a new leader, it appears that Kim Jong Il is still making North Korean policy from the grave.
This will slow meaningful US-North Korea re-engagement, especially with the Obama administration’s desire to avoid a new foreign policy gaffe (such as appearing soft or naive) before the US elections.
But the failure of the rocket is also a setback to North Korea’s effort to gain a credible deterrent against US or South Korean attack by deploying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
This third DPRK attempt at a multi-stage rocket flight follows similar failures in 1998 and 2009. The leadership in Pyongyang may fear that adversaries will see this high-profile bust as a sign of weakness, prompting the regime to compensate for this increased vulnerability with an intimidating show of strength.
The rocket launch was not only a technical failure for North Korea, but also a profound failure of political vision. Thus far the reign of Kim Jong Un seems to spell continued misery for the North Korean people and peril for their neighbors.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center. A specialist in Asia-Pacific security issues, Mr. Roy is working on a book about the impact of China's rise on regional security.