North Korean missile launch failure: what it means for West

Washington’s snap reaction to the North Korean missile launch failure contained decidedly mixed emotions, including relief and concern about what the regime might try next.

Kyodo News/AP
People watch a TV news program showing North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un at Naha airport, Okinawa, southern Japan, April 13. North Korea fired a long-range rocket early Friday, which later crashed into the ocean.

A North Korean satellite launch on Friday ended in epic failure as the booster rocket broke up over the Yellow Sea, embarrassing the Pyongyang regime at the moment it is celebrating the 100th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il-sung.

Earlier in the week, normally secretive North Korean officials had bused foreign journalists to the launch site of the Unha-3, or Galaxy-3, in an effort to show off the state of their space technology. In the end this display of rare openness backfired, as North Korean state media four hours after launch admitted that their Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite had not reached its preset orbit.

North Korea’s orbital attempt had been condemned by Group of Eight foreign ministers before the “go” button was pushed. The Obama administration had already announced that because of the launch, it was suspending a planned program to exchange food aid for a rollback in North Korea’s nuclear program.

“Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in a statement. “While this action is not surprising given North Korea’s pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community.”

What’s the meaning of this malfunction for the West? After all, the hermit kingdom of East Asia is as unpredictable as its military uniforms are drab.

Washington’s snap reaction to the misfire contained decidedly mixed emotions. On the one hand there was relief, as the rocket’s failure confirmed that North Korea has yet to master the difficult task of launching stuff into orbit. After all, a nuclear-armed Pyongyang is one thing; a nuclear-armed and ICBM-capable Pyongyang is quite another.

“I keep saying the same thing to reporters: launching rockets is hard & [North Korea] isn’t good at it,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., shortly after the rocket failure.

Redstone, the first US space rocket, failed in nine of its first 10 launches, Dr. Lewis pointed out.

On the other hand, no nation likes public embarrassment, and that may go double for a dictatorial regime that has shown no compunction about letting its people starve while pouring resources into the military.

The test failure constitutes a humiliating setback for North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, writes Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. He and the nation’s military could well turn to some other provocative act to try to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority.

“If history is any guide, this suggests that a test of a nuclear warhead or some sort of aggressive military action – for example, an artillery strike – against South Korea could be in the offing,” writes Dr. Haas in a CFR commentary.

Finally, the North Korean rocket flap will feed the longstanding Washington debate over whether and how to engage North Korea in productive discussions. 

The Obama administration for months had worked on a deal that called for the United States to provide 240,000 tons of food assistance in return for a number of concessions, including a North Korean missile-test moratorium. The US had been set to announce the deal last December, but then North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il died, setting back negotiations.

Following further talks in China, on Feb. 29 the US and North Korea issued separate statements outlining what each side thought they’d agreed to. While the US mentioned a moratorium on missile launches, the North Koreans did not.

Perhaps North Korea felt its forthcoming “satellite” launch did not qualify as a “missile” test. Perhaps North Korean officials knew that the US would view the upcoming test as a deal breaker, and they just wanted to see how the White House would react.

Whatever Pyongyang’s intentions, the disparity between the two sides' summaries of the talks “led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing,” writes Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy magazine’s The Cable blog.

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