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Initial Thoughts on the North Korean Missile Test

A screen shows a rocket being launched from a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at North Korea's satellite control center (REUTERS/KYODO Kyodo).

The NORAD press spokesman has confirmed the evident success of the missile launch: “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.” This success occurred after four previous failures beginning in August 1998.

Unlike the previous attempted missile launch last April, North Korea did not publicize its plans internally, though following the test it broadcast the news to a domestic audience. The success is an undoubted boost to the domestic legitimacy of Kim Jong Un. It comes within the 2012 calendar year, during which time the leadership pledged that it would “open the gate” to becoming a prosperous and powerful state, even though it remains almost desperately poor and internationally isolated. The regime also claims a successful test demonstrates its capacity to defy international condemnation and advance its scientific goals, supposedly for peaceful purposes. It has achieved this success before South Korea could test an advanced missile of its own, with the launch of the latter now delayed into 2013.

The test comes one week before the South Korean presidential election. Most observers assumed that North Korea would not test a missile in advance of the election, lest it weaken the electoral prospects of the opposition party candidate, Moon Jae-in. (Most polls show the ruling party candidate, Madame Park Gun-hye, with an appreciable lead, though a few polls are still within the margin of error.) Public opinion in South Korea is notoriously volatile, but the test further weakens Moon’s election prospects, though it is unlikely to prove decisive. If anything, Pyongyang may have concluded that Moon’s election chances were already diminishing, so why not proceed with the test?

The US appears to have been caught flat footed by the test. On December 10, North Korea announced that because of various technical problems it was expanding the launch window until late December and there were even some reports that it was disassembling the missile. This may have convinced some officials that there was no imminent possibility of a test. It took the NSC press spokesman more than four hours to release a brief, formulaic statement criticizing the test. If Pyongyang was intent on deceiving the outside world about its plans, it succeeded brilliantly.

The bigger risks for Pyongyang concern its relations with China. The US, Japan, and South Korea have already called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, since the North’s test are in direct violation of Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit North Korea from undertaking any rocket tests “using ballistic missile technology.” Since North Korea announced on December 1 that it would attempt another satellite launch, there have been persistent reports that the Obama Administration would seek to impose even harsher sanctions, even though North Korea is probably already the world’s most heavily sanctioned state. The US thus seems very likely to put great pressure on China to agree to additional sanctions. In recent weeks, the Chinese have openly cautioned the North Koreans from undertaking another test, without signaling what China would do should Pyongyang decide to test. Beijing’s first comments on the test had an ominous tone: “all parties concerned should stay cool headed and refrain from stoking the flames so as to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.” How China chooses to respond will be the first foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.

The possibility of another nuclear test also looms as a distinct possibility. When the UNSC condemned the attempted missile launch last April, North Korea warned of unspecified countermeasures and there were clear indications of additional tunneling activity at the North’s nuclear test site. Since Pyongyang undertook nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 following UNSC actions, it appeared that would again test, but it refrained, perhaps under major pressure from China, its primary economic and political benefactor. Late last week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry renewed a previous warning that “various circumstances compel us to completely review the nuclear issue.” China clearly disapproves of the North’s missile launches, but it may simply tolerate them and move on. Another nuclear test, however, would be a qualitatively different affront to China, and would underscore Beijing’s inability to prevent Pyongyang from embarking on exceedingly risky steps. Should there be another nuclear test, China’s newly installed top leaders would face a major challenge both in regional security and in US-China relations. This bears very careful watching.

The immediate impulse in some quarters will be to conclude that NK now has the means to reach the continental United States with a nuclear warhead, but this seems very premature. We simply don’t know whether North Korea has been able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon. It is nonetheless a significant technical accomplishment that advances North Korea toward such a goal, if the ability to reach the United States with a nuclear weapon is the ultimate purpose of its nuclear program. However endangered and vulnerable North Korea might first seem, it repeatedly finds ways to punch above its weight, endanger regional security, and defy the international community.

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