N.K. Provocation Suggests Regime in Trouble


Apr 9, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on April 9, 2009.

North Korea spent weeks preparing to launch a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. It argued that the launch was intended to put a satellite into orbit. But a space launch vehicle is a ballistic missile used for a modestly different purpose. The missile launch was intended to travel over Japan and out to a range that would allow it to reach the United States -- a clear provocation against Japan and the United States. The North Korean regime's desperation has led it to action that imperils the regime as well as regional and global peace.

This launch presents the United States with four important questions: Why did North Korea do this? What have we learned from the results? How will the world react? And what does this provocation suggest about future North Korean behavior?

Why did Kim Jong-il carry out this provocation?

Most of the international media focus has been on external reasons for the North Korean action: Setting conditions for negotiation with President Obama, pressuring the Republic of Korea to return to a "sunshine" policy, and forcing the world to pay attention to North Korea.

More importantly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il presumably hoped that the Taepodong-2 rocket would actually work, putting the United States within range of North Korean nuclear weapons and thereby adding greater leverage to subsequent North Korean coercion of the United States. North Korea has insisted that the United States treat North Korea as a nuclear "peer." A demonstrated ICBM capability would move North Korea a long way in that direction.

North Korea apparently wanted to split the international reaction. The launch was a clear violation of U.N. Resolution 1718 that directs North Korea to "not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile" and "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program." By claiming that this was actually a satellite launch, North Korea hoped to avoid censure under this resolution, or at least win support from sympathetic states that wish to treat a missile as something different depending upon its payload. But the U.S. position is clear: a missile is still a missile, whatever its payload.

North Korea's claim of a satellite launch also sought to legitimize the launch so as to avoid a U.S. attempt to intercept a missile. In addition, North Korea warned in strong terms that it would carry out counterstrikes against any intercept.

Still, the North Korean regime has historically carried out provocations more for internal North Korean reasons than external reasons.

Internally, the Kim family regime has seriously damaged the viability of North Korea, driving the economy into failure, starving its people, and denying them basic human rights. Neither the regime nor the state has failed yet, and both might continue to survive in some form for many years to come.

Still, even small external pressures have escalated North Korea's internal economic and related problems and forced the regime to take some kind of action.

Other governments have learned to compromise with the outside world when they have faced such troubles. With North Korea, there is no such option. If a North Korean leader were to compromise under external pressure, he would appear weak and ripe for overthrow. He is therefore forced into provocations that make him appear empowered. He can then drive at an international agreement that he can describe as a favorable result of North Korean coercion and empowerment, even if it involves a little compromise.

This is what happened in 2006. U.S. economic sanctions impeded North Korean use of the international banking system, potentially imperiling the regime. That July, North Korea used ballistic missile launches to demonstrate its power and threats, recognizing that in the short term the international reaction could be increased sanctions.

When the North Korean launches failed to relieve the sanction pressure, the country then tested a nuclear weapon in October -- a clear threat escalation. The international community increased sanctions further after this test. But within a few months, an agreement was reached in the six-party talks that resolved many of the financial sanctions, provided North Korea with considerable aid, and cost North Korea very little. The North Korean leaders had not only arrested the regime's downward spiral; they had reversed it to some extent and demonstrated their power.

The North Korean return to provocations now suggests that the regime again faces serious internal threats. The outside world may only be seeing a part of those problems.

The famine of 2008 was not as serious as the 1990s famine. Still, many North Koreans starved to death and some military units suffered from inadequate food. The food shortage was exacerbated by the lack of food aid from the Republic of Korea (ROK), and the 2008 harvest suffered from the lack of fertilizer from the ROK.

In an effort to deal with food and other economic shortages, the North Korean regime began several years ago to allow local markets to develop. But the markets brought many of the "evils" of capitalism, undermining regime control.

Regime attempts to largely close these markets have led to various challenges to the regime. North Korean citizens who have managed to survive because of the markets have insisted on them staying open, and corrupt elites who have found the markets a source of wealth have been lax in enforcing the new rules. The restrictions have now been relaxed, probably reflecting pressure by the corrupt elites.

Note also that the North Korean markets are heavily tied to the black market and other corrupt activities, reflecting growing rebellion that now seems to characterize North Korea. Other forms include the attempts of refugees to escape North Korea, the rise of theft for survival, the influx of information from outside North Korea, and some reported assassination attempts on North Korean leaders. In short, the North Korean regime must perceive a loss of control that is increasingly serious.

These and other conditions in the North make the regime appear weak, unable to control the challenges North Korea faces. The regime apparently hoped that a successful satellite launch with a missile able to reach the United States would make the regime appear very empowered internally.

What do the results of the launch suggest?

The launch succeeded in part but not completely. North Korea has a partially successful space program and has mastered parts of intercontinental ballistic missile technology, posing a direct threat to U.S. territory. North Korea may be able to mount a nuclear warhead on such missiles.

Potentially, North Korea can now fire a nuclear weapon at major U.S. cities. This is a serious change in threats to U.S. security. While North Korea would be deterred from doing so in peacetime, in a conflict the regime may conclude that a nuclear weapon demonstration against the United States would coerce the United States into abandoning its "nuclear umbrella" support for the ROK and Japan. North Korea might feel that the United States would be reluctant to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it knew that North Korea could escalate to using nuclear weapons against U.S. cities. This would be a very high risk for North Korea, but it may perceive that any war with its neighbors and the United States would be a war for regime survival, justifying such risks.

Because one missile partially worked does not mean that others will work in the future: All missiles have the potential to be unreliable. But from a coercion perspective, the United States cannot count on a North Korean missile failing; it must be prepared to deal with and potentially defeat such a launch.

For whatever reasons, the United States did not try to intercept this launch. Thus, we do not know from this case whether the U.S. ballistic missile defense system will work in the future against Taepodong launches.

How will the world react to the launch?

This event will cause great global concern.

While the Taepodong can reach the United States, it can also reach many other countries (including China and Russia). Moreover, if the United States accepts North Korean coercion, U.S. allies in northeast Asia may lose some or all of the nuclear umbrella that they have counted on to protect them against North Korean nuclear weapons. Japan and South Korea may come to feel that they therefore need their own nuclear weapons, potentially igniting a regional nuclear arms race.

In addition, this launch was a major act of defiance against the United States, China, and the other regional countries. All had urged North Korea not to launch this missile. In particular, this is a first major act of defiance against the new U.S. Administration, which now might be reasonably expected to lead actions against North Korea and take a relatively strong position against the North.

Even if the Obama Administration still wanted to be a peacemaker, the increased threat would make it vulnerable to conservative criticism of weakness, a lack of concern for U.S. security, and poor leadership.

Because this launch violated U.N. Resolution 1718, the United States will likely seek substantial U.N. sanctions. This will be despite North Korea's claim that this was a space launch.

These sanctions will likely be economic, and most affect Chinese trade with North Korea (because China is North Korea's largest trading partner). In the past, China has been willing to enforce U.N. actions against North Korea for a short period of time, but has always reduced enforcement over time out of fear of jeopardizing the North Korean regime. It could well act similarly this time.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any military action will be taken against North Korea for now. None of North Korea's neighbors want its government to collapse.

What does this provocation suggest about future N. Korean behavior?

The example of 2006 is very important. Certainly, the Taepodong launch will not resolve the underlying North Korean problems with food, the economy, and the regime's loss of control. New international economic sanctions could further challenge the regime. The magnitude of the new threat posed makes it difficult for the international community to compromise in the short-term; meanwhile, the situation inside North Korea will likely get worse.

North Korea would thus be expected to feel the need for a second provocation, just like it did in 2006. And it will feel that an escalated threat will be required because of the magnitude of the reactions to the ICBM launch.

North Korea might do another nuclear weapon test, likely trying to achieve a higher weapon yield (above 10 kilotons) to demonstrate to the world that North Korea has mastered nuclear technology and can pose a serious threat if the international community does not back down.

Alternatively, North Korea might attempt an armed or terrorist provocation. It would want to generate serious shock in the international community to get the major countries to back down. But such a provocation could well lead to an international military response against North Korea and even war, making this a less likely North Korean alternative.

However, if the North Korean regime is suffering greater control problems than the rest of the world realizes, it may decide to induce the appearance of a foreign military attack on North Korea, justifying a diversionary war to reestablish internal control. The North Korean regime would take extremely high risks in doing so, risks that it may only be willing to take if the regime feels it is facing high jeopardy. Given North Korean information denial efforts, we do not know how desperate the North Korean regime feels (remembering the surprise the world experienced with the fall of the Soviet Union).

Are ROK and U.S. deterrence adequate against such challenges?

Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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