North Korea’s Rocket Launch: Who’s Up, Who’s Down?

As the United Nations Security Council considers a response to the North Korean missile launch, I’d like to offer my view on the immediate “winners and losers” from this episode.

North Korea carried out, as promised, a launch of a long-range, three stage rocket yesterday that not only didn’t explode but apparently put its modest payload into orbit. NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command – issued a statement confirming this. This marks a true milestone for the North, as it had attempted four previous long-range launches over the past fourteen years, the most recent in April, and all failed. Ultimately, without an effective policy to prevent it, it was only a matter of time before the North succeeded.

North Korea watchers, technical experts, and officials in the United States, Japan, South Korea and China are busy reacting and responding to the launch. For our part, Ploughshares Fund has collected some initial analysis and media, while others similarly provide quick summaries of the details of the event and its meaning.

As the United Nations Security Council meets today in an emergency session to consider a response to the launch, I’d like to offer my view on the immediate “winners and losers” from the launch episode.


Kim Jong Un – The latest in the Kim dynasty to rule North Korea, reportedly not yet 30 years old, was thrust into his position barely one year ago. He had very little time to be groomed in the years prior to Kim Jong Il’s death, and though most of 2012 has seen a smooth transition, there seems to be consensus that he needs to solidify his credibility. April’s spectacular – and very public – rocket fiasco did not help his case. This week is symbolically important as the anniversary of KJI’s passing, the one year anniversary of KJU’s ascension, and the 100 year marking of Kim Il Sung’s birth. The young Kim has literally hit one out of the park.

North Korean Military – Those leaders in the military and rocket program responsible for April’s failure had a lot riding on this launch. Its apparent success is not only a positive for their personal and professional future, but it reinforces the dominance of the military overall in North Korea’s power structure. True, there may be “official” titles and organizational distinctions made in state media that seem to indicate that the army and rocket program are separate, but the likely reality is that the rocket, armed forces, and nuclear programs are closer to a monolith than a diverse set of institutions.

Iran – Cooperation between Iran and North Korea on missile technology and nuclear expertise has been observed for years. Reports from the last few days indicated that there may have been Iranians on site for the DPRK launch. As the North’s rocket prowess becomes more legitimate, the threat or perceived threat from Iran also grows.

Missile Proliferators – North Korea now becomes a much more reputable source of missile components and expertise, as if Iran’s place in the missile market were not bad enough. North Korea is desperate for cash and/or barter and has demonstrated a willingness to trade in these illicit goods.

United State “North Korea” Hawks – The launch is clearly a negative development for international security, and clearly a breach of existing UN sanctions. No one would disagree. But the reaction about what this means varies. For those in the U.S. arena that have taken a hard line against North Korea, the launch reinforces a case for all sticks and no carrots. An example is this piece that calls for far more sweeping sanctions, a South Korean missile defense program, and even possible military interdiction on the seas.

The Missile Defense Agency – With the recent Hamas vs. Israel missile fight, and the reports of the “Iron Dome” anti-missile shield that Israel used, the North Korea launch will likely reinforce calls for more robust U.S. missile defense capability and programs. Never mind that Iron Dome was purely a tactical or short-range device, or that the North’s missiles are sitting ducks for days given the way they are put together and readied for launch. We’ll likely see the latest DPRK launch stoke new calls for missile defense spending here at home.


Diplomacy – While the launch is a bad development, it is not a crisis or emergency. It reminds us that the North is determined to further development its rocket technology and expertise, and that this is readily applied to its nuclear weapons capacity. There will be no appetite to re-engage with Pyongyang in the next days or weeks, but that is exactly what we and our allies in the region should be doing. It is not helpful to have political space for reasoned, creative diplomacy criticized.

China – Once again China seems to have missed or ignored an opportunity to be more productive with respect to North Korea’s behavior. It is not the case that China necessarily could have stopped the launch, but its response has been predictable and not particularly strong, instead falling back on old statements of condemnation and restraint. Beijing must be somewhat embarrassed for the moment,particularly since a high level official, Li Jianguo, visited Pyongyang just ten days ago. But there is now a window to play a more positive lead in dealing with Pyongyang.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs – North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the lead in dealing with the United States and other nations, and when the military is “up” they are typically down. This launch, like the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests, will likely make their job much harder – to paraphrase what an actual high-level North Korean diplomat said to U.S. counterparts after the 2006 test. In other words, Pyongyang’s internal pecking order has shifted, and unless the young Kim has a longer term plan to re-engage internationally in a positive way, the North’s diplomats will be even more constrained than others.

Sanctions and the UN – North Korea is the most sanctioned nation on Earth. Yet it defies not only the spirit but the practical application of those measures. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The UN and U.S. sanctions – while necessary – are not sufficient to entice Pyongyang to do anything differently. We need a blend of carrots and sticks. Even those that swing only hammers have to look at the evidence – is it working?  No.

North Koreans – Finally, lest we forget, the rocket launch and satellite program is not cheap. Estimates are around $1.3 for the program this past year, and the entire North Korean economy hovers somewhere around $40 billion. With some 22 million human beings to feed, care for, educate, govern and house, clearly a choice has been made. And it does not favor ordinary North Korean citizens.