North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is celebrating the first anniversary of his rule on December 17 in a way his late father would have approved—by keeping everyone else off balance.
After announcing another satellite launch in the face of Security Council Resolution 1874 banning such launches, then delaying it to fix a technical glitch, Pyongyang abruptly fired it off.
The launch came as Kim has been reaching out in all directions. He has refrained from nuclear testing in an attempt to open renewed nuclear negotiations with the United States while toughening his bargaining position; resumed talks with Japan on abductions and other issues after a four-year hiatus while denouncing Tokyo’s military muscle-flexing; sent authoritative signals to Seoul about resuming engagement once South Korea elects a new president while defaming the incumbent; dispatched everyone from his uncle and the military top brass to cabinet members and provincial leaders to China while spurning Beijing’s pleas not to cause trouble; and sent the Supreme People’s Assembly president to Southeast Asia—and Iran.
Kim has also been sending mixed messages about his economic policy. In his maiden speech to the Central Committee, instead of repeating past calls for sacrifice, he expressed his determination not to have his people “tighten their belts again,” thereby staking his legitimacy on economic growth. He also announced that the cabinet will take charge of the economy and that the military must heed it, emphasizing the army’s role in civilian construction. Meanwhile, he elevated the profile of the State Security Department and the Ministry of People’s Security to forestall any backlash.
Media attention has mostly focused on the new leader’s obvious stylistic departures from his father – his many public appearances, including some with his stylish new wife, his public speeches, and his appropriation of Mickey Mouse. Less noted was his show of authority – cashiering his father’s army chief of staff and head of internal security and promoting a former provincial party leader to vice marshal and head of the army’s General Political Department as well as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. That could put him in a stronger position to undertake economic policy changes. So could the launch success.
The latest launch, like the last one in April, seemed to underscore a new tougher bargaining position Pyongyang made public on August 31, demanding that Washington move first to reassure it: “The twenty-year-long history of the talks between the DPRK and the U.S. has shown that even the principle of simultaneous action steps is not workable unless the hostile concept of the U.S. towards the DPRK is removed.” Tolerating satellite launches offers more reassurance than Washington could be expected to give.
North Korea has also claimed that other countries have the right to launch satellites, so why prohibit it? As if to underscore that point, the announcement of the launch followed South Korea’s announcement that it would launch a satellite, a launch subsequently postponed because of a “propulsion” problem.
South Korea had also just renegotiated a long-standing agreement with the United States to allow it to develop a longer-range missile capable of reaching all of North Korea. In response, the North’s Foreign Ministry spokesman denounced the move on October 10, adding, “The U.S. has so far stepped up sanctions against the DPRK, calling for preventing its satellite launch for peaceful purposes while claiming that satellite also uses the ballistic missile technology. But, now it is in a position unable to make any excuses even though the DPRK launches a long-range missile for military purposes.”
In announcing the launch, the North’s Committee of Space Launch Technology said it had “analyzed the mistakes that were made during the previous April launch,” but some outside experts expressed doubts about conducting a launch in the bitter cold of mid-winter so soon after that well-publicized failure.
Others questioned how much of the North’s missile program is indigenous. The Unha-3 launch vehicle site consisted of three stages of largely Russian design and manufacture, for instance. It takes years of test launches to perfect reliable designs, never mind train launch crews. Yet the North has conducted very few such launches over the past three decades. That has even prompted some skeptics to wonder how many medium- and longer-range missiles the North has bought and whether it has reverse engineered any to make more on its own, suggesting that a robust testing program would soon exhaust its stockpile. Yet the launch success demonstrated the North’s mastery of staging, which is essential for developing a long-range missile, suggesting it may be more technically accomplished than the skeptics think.
The launch seemed timed to be a tribute to Kim’s late father, and its success bolsters his own standing at home. Yet the launch seemed untimely in other respects. The announcement came a day after a high-level Chinese delegation visited Pyongyang with a letter to Kim Jong-il from its newly chosen leader Xi Jinping, prompting China’s expression of “deep concern.” It could also strengthen ultranationalists’ bid for power in Japan’s election December 16, and it came just days before the December 19 presidential election in South Korea in which the two leading candidates are campaigning to resume economic engagement that the North needs. Kim’s economy is growing – though at a gradual pace. Yet any substantial improvement in economic performance will require a redirection of industrial production from military to civilian use and new investment and aid from the outside, while reducing its dependence on China. That requires reengaging with the new government in Seoul.
The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun signaled the opening on December 8:
It is an urgent task of the era whose solution brooks no further delay to improve the inter-Korean relations. None of the Koreans wants the north-south confrontation. It is necessary to settle the abnormal relations between the north and the south as early as possible. The north and the south should work hard to improve their relations, wiping out extreme misunderstanding and distrust, respecting and trusting each other, putting aside differences and seeking common points. The efforts to mend the inter-Korean relations are related to the peace, reunification and prosperity common to the nation desired by the compatriots.
The satellite launch could delay Seoul’s reengagement, even if impending sanctions have no economic impact. Will UN sanctions provide a pretext for Pyongyang to test the new nuclear warhead it says it has? Not if Kim wants to have his anniversary cake and eat it too.
Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.
Image: Flickr/Colin J.