Pyongyang Fails Again: North Korea’s Third Missile Launch and Kim Jong-il’s Miscalculation

On April, 5, 2009, despite the international community’s repeated warnings and attempts to persuade it to do otherwise, North Korea chose the path of a rogue state and launched a long-range ballistic missile. Contrary to Pyongyang’s calculations, this incident does not demonstrate North Korea’s strength or self-reliance, but should be perceived as an utter failure by North Korea in both tactics and strategy.

First, North Korea failed in the narrow sense of its own proclaimed military-technological goal: the missile launch itself was a failure. According to Pyongyang’s notification to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on March 12, 2009, the first-stage launcher should have flown more than 630km, and the second stage vehicle should have lasted more than 3,500km from the Musudan-ri launching facility. However, the first fell down in the East Sea and the second one splashed into the Pacific Ocean much earlier than planned. No satellite was placed into orbit, and even the separation of a satellite from the launch vehicle was not observed. According to reports so far, the flying range of this missile is not impressively farther than that of the Taepodong-1 launched in 1998. At that time the Pyongyang government officially announced the first vehicle flew 253km and the second 1,646km.

Claims of a satellite launch notwithstanding, North Korea’s strategic objective for this launch was to prove that it has a nuclear deterrent – including means of delivery capable of reaching United States territory. In this sense, then, North Korea failed to achieve its strategic military goal. In a real contingency, the North Korea will have no chance to use a Taepodong-1 or -2 to attack any country with a nuclear payload. While North Korea might be finding solace in the fact that there was no mid-air explosion as in its previous test of a long rang missile, in July 2006, the present failure appears rather pathetic and dismal considering North Korea’s eloquent public claim that: “The launch, the product of the significant advancement in space technology for the past ten years, would contribute to the state’s economic development.” Following the launch, North Korea can not proclaim that it is now a militarily credible nuclear state with the requisite technology for warhead miniaturization and a delivery vehicle.

Kim Jong-il may partially realize his domestic political goal, on April 9, of beginning his third term as Chairman of the National Defense Commission at the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly under the banner of leading the state to the prosperous and strong nation (Kangsong Daekuk) status by 2012, while silencing various rumblings regarding his health and succession issues. Yet, in diplomacy, he has also created a substantial obstacle in his plan to score economic and political gains through a bilateral discussion with the U.S., discussions which he envisioned would be offered after a successful missile launch. The new U.S. administration, unlike its predecessor, has already expressed its willingness to have summit talks with the North Korean leader, and has extended its hand to North Korea for the beginning of a new relationship. Still, Kim coldly rejected Washington’s gesture, and now he will have to pay a substantial price before re-engaging the U.S. in friendly discussions. Diplomatically, Kim only helped South Korea and Japan develop a strong consensus with the U.S. regarding the North Korean problems.

North Korea has the ill-considered belief that its hard line stance will always succeed since the U.S. and other Six-Party Talks participants have relentlessly pleaded for the reopening of the talks under even more favorable terms for North Korea despite North Korea’s actions and various pressuring attempts. However, considering North Korea’s current problems that include political complications in the delayed succession plan and Kim’s deteriorating health, diplomatic challenges, economic difficulties, and food supply issues, concerted action by the international community, especially among the members of the Six-Party Talks, will be able to teach North Korea the foolishness of equating confrontation with expanding its opportunistic gains.

Recently the North Korean foreign ministry bluntly stated that it would roll back its process of disabling the Yongbyon nuclear facilities if the UN Security Council starts discussions on the latest missile launch. Now is the time for the U.S. and the ROK to call North Korea’s bluff. The U.S. must make it clear that no high level talks with North Korea will resume without North Korea clearly announcing its intent to abandon its nuclear program through the nuclear and missile related dialogues. The greatest sanction against North Korea would be a declaration by the U.S. that it is cutting off high-level bilateral talks with North Korea. For now, the U.S. needs to stop its direct communication with North Korea and instead use the joint counteractions of the UN Security Council, and strengthen the separate “the cooperative network of willing” with like-minded countries like the UK, France, Australia, South Korea, and Japan.

North Korea has more limited future options than we imagine. First, North Korea cannot do any more missile tests. The confirmed flying ranges of its Scud and Rodong missiles have already existed for more than 10 years, and the ROK and Japan have been living under this threat for that time. The North Korean dream of reaching U.S. territory will never be easily achievable. Even if North Korea had succeeded in launching a satellite, which appears unlikely, the evolution of the satellite launching vehicle into an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) requires atmosphere reentry technology. Furthermore, the miniaturization of nuclear weapons presents even more technical obstacles and an even longer development time. It would take a long time for Kim to develop the means for a similar act to draw the attention of the world once again. We should use this time to reeducate North Korea.

It is my estimation that North Korea will not conduct a second nuclear test. At its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, the Pyongyang government notified to its friendly nations that it would create an explosion of more than 20MW using 6 kg of plutonium. However, the actual explosion yielded only 0.15-1.5MW. Initially, therefore, some countries were reluctant to define its test as successful. A new nuclear test caused by the failed missile launch will not likely showcase any significant breakthrough in technology. A second test will not be able to produce a result exceeding the practically failed first test, which required North Korea to empty its limited stock of plutonium. The best part of the disablement of the Yongbyon facility was the knock-down of the cooling tower of the 5MWe experimental nuclear reactor. It is difficult for North Korea to rebuild the cooling tower to re-operate its antiquated reactor, and acquire the raw materials for plutonium. North Korea’s only option is to restore its radiochemical laboratory to acquire an additional 5~8 kg of plutonium by reprocessing 8,000 remaining spent fuel rods. Such a possibility, however, is remote. No substantial change in bargaining power will occur, and as long as North Korea is really willing to denuclearize, this hypothetically new plutonium must be in the list of declaration of nuclear activities to be verified.

North Korea’s attempt to in effect blackmail the international community by claiming it will cease participation in the Six-Party Talks if this missile launch is discussed in the UN Security Council will also fail; it will not harm the long-term interests of the U.S. or the ROK. Rather, North Korea will only lose the effectiveness of the last remaining card it holds. Now the international community must reprimand North Korea for its bad actions during the last 60 days.

North Korea is neither a nuclear state, nor an ICBM state, but a failed rogue nation with a potentially dangerous nuclear program and the ability to jangle the world’s nerves by attempting to demonstrate this program, or proliferate its technology.

I have previously suggested that, because of the probability of failure as in July 2006, North Korea should have rescheduled last weekend’s launch and that the U.S. should publicly announce its intention to have high level talks with North Korea (see “North Korea’s Third Attempt to Launch a Long-Rang Missile and the Last Opportunity to Prevent It,” Brookings, March 23, 2009). While North Korea failed to act as recommended, U.S. officials have patiently and repeatedly over the past few weeks emphasized the U.S.’s willingness talk officially and unofficially. North Korea, however, refused to accept the U.S. proposition.

In the wake of the April 5 missile launch, the greatest sanction against North Korea would be a declaration by Washington of a cut-off of high-level bilateral talks with North Korea unless it clearly promises its intention to abandon its nuclear and missile programs through talks. The North Korean leadership is always thirsty for high level contacts with the U.S. But until it shows an intention to substantially alter its policy direction, all support for North Korea must be stopped. Non-military pressure also must be strengthened through cooperation among all interested parties, while the UN Security Council must continue to impose Resolution 1718 and additional actions. It is time for North Korea to take responsibility for its actions.