Asia Program

Statement on North Korean Missile Launch

Dec 12, 2012

North Korea’s successful launch this morning of a satellite raises a number of troubling issues for the Obama administration as it thinks about the challenges of the next four years.

First, was the U.S. intelligence community as surprised by the successful launch as news reports indicate?  Had U.S. intelligence accepted the reports of the past few days that the North had run into problems that required the postponement or cancellation of the launch?  What else about North Korea’s military capabilities don’t we know?

Second, it seems likely that Kim Jong-un’s success in achieving a feat that had eluded his father will serve to solidify his power in the treacherous and poorly understood arena of North Korean politics.  What steps might a strengthened Kim now take to further consolidate his position?  Most pressingly for North Korea’s decrepit economy, will Kim, having thumbed his nose at the international community on the missile launch issue, also continue to ignore the near-universal belief of outsiders that North Korea’s only hope for escaping economic implosion is for the country to open up economically?

Third, how should the United States and the international community respond to this blatant North Korean violation of UN Security Council resolutions?  Will Pyongyang be required to face “consequences” for its willful defiance, as some are calling for?  If so, what new sanctions and other penalties might be imposed that offer any hope of taming North Korean recalcitrance?  Or has the world simply run out of options for coercing the North? And what are the likely consequences should the world not respond decisively and effectively to North Korean provocations?

Finally, most analysts believe that only China has the ability to leverage North Korea onto a less provocative path.  The new Chinese leadership in Beijing is no doubt embarrassed by North Korea’s missile launch, in the face of China’s prior warnings that such a step would not be welcome.  Will this embarrassment at long last lead Beijing to crack down on its erstwhile friends in Pyongyang?  Don’t bet on it.  A policy of outsourcing Washington’s North Korea policy to China has not worked in the past; it is unlikely to yield greater success this time.

For outsiders, North Korea remains a black box wrapped in a dark blanket tucked inside an unlit closet.  We simply don’t have a good read about what is going on in this isolated country.  This morning’s satellite launch underscores the urgency of our finding out.

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