North Korea rocket launch: fireworks of fear

North Korea plans to launch a missile by April 16 in violation of UN sanctions. It will be yet another provocative act by a regime that has long used blackmail and crisis to simply survive and to win concessions.

Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo
South Korean Army soldiers watch a TV program which shows North Korea's Unha-3 rocket ready for launch.

North Korea plans to launch its latest rocket across the waters of the Far East, perhaps by April 16. The plan has already drawn the desired response in the region: Fear and, most of all, more attention on North Korea.

Nations are lining up to condemn the provocative act, which violates a United Nations resolution. Washington is divided over how to respond. Journalists are playing up the implied threat. Japan may even shoot down the three-stage Unha-3 rocket if it strays close to its shores.

And just to make sure it is being feared and not ignored, North Korea may also soon conduct a third nuclear test, according to reports. The first two tests, in 2006 and 2009, weren’t a technical success. And North Korea’s previous rocket launches, in 1998 and 2009, weren’t great hits either.

Such actions fit a long pattern of brinkmanship, bellicosity, and blackmail by the Pyongyang regime. Fortunately, the Kim family dynasty has been relying on waves of provocative acts long enough that the rest of the world has caught on. Even its only ally, China, now sees through the obvious childish behavior.

Yet the small, poor, and hermitlike country persists in using threats and intimidation, mainly against the US, South Korea, and Japan. One reason is to maintain unity among a small wealthy elite and to boost the regime’s legitimacy among the hungry and largely ignorant North Korean masses.

Another reason is to wring concessions, such as food aid or oil. That well-tested tactic seems more earnest as the regime tries to rely less on China for essential supplies.

Guessing the regime’s motives has long been tricky, although the pattern of deceit in honoring agreements has been a long one. Since the 1990s, the US and South Korea have tried to coax three successive Kims to bring their country out of isolation. After being duped many times, Washington and Seoul now have a basic approach of “strategic patience.”

Yet the regime still finds that its survival is too important to risk opening up its closed society by welcoming investment and modern communications. So the tactics of fear and fostering of crises go on.

North Korea really has no real deterrent value in having a nuclear weapon when the rest of the world just wants it to come out of its shell. Even South Korea, which once sought reunification, prefers to simply help North Korea thrive on its own before any talk of unity.

So when, or if, the Unha-3 rocket flies over Asian waters in coming days, perhaps the world can see it as a last gasp of a fearmongering regime that doesn’t know what else to do. Exposing its tactics of fear is halfway to ending them.

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