North Korea announced on Dec. 1 that it would launch another long-range rocket some time between Monday and Dec. 22, a timeframe that has since been extended to Dec. 29 because of “technical problems.” In April, Pyongyang also attempted a rocket launch, ostensibly to put an Earth-observation satellite into orbit to honor the centennial of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, but the mission failed as the rocket disintegrated shortly after its launch. Some experts say the launch is a guise for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang’s planned launch has prompted stern condemnations from the US, Japan and South Korea, because it violates UN Security Council resolutions. Russia and China have appealed to the North to reconsider its decision, seemingly to no avail.
Why would Pyongyang defy both its critics and friends? What does it hope to achieve? Analysts say that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could use a successful launch to commemorate his late father and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who died on Dec. 17 last year, and boost his leadership legitimacy and credentials. Others believe that the North is using the rocket launch to influence a tightly contested presidential election in South Korea on Wednesday next week, which mainly pits ruling conservative New Frontier Party candidate Park Geun-hye against the liberal opposition Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in.
During the campaign, Moon has called for a return to the “Sunshine” policy and renewed engagement with North Korea, but Pyongyang’s intervention could backfire and become a “kiss of death” for him. There are signs that many South Korean voters resent Pyongyang’s interference and provocative behavior toward Seoul, and they could switch their support to Park.
There is another reason — perhaps the most important — why Pyongyang will not yield to international pressure and suspend further tests of its nuclear and long-range missile program. The North conducted tests in 2006, 2009 and in April this year, but the results were unsatisfactory. Until it can fully master the technology for mounting and launching nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, it will continue with its tests.
After all, the Kim regime — especially the powerful military establishment — believes that the nation’s survival and security depend on the acquisition of the nuclear weapons. In a system that preaches a “military first” doctrine, military leaders almost certainly dominate decisionmaking, particularly with the young leader still trying to find his feet.
In this context, it seems pertinent to analyze the relationship between North Korea and China, Pyongyang’s only ally and a vital source of much-needed aid and trade. Like other nations in the region, China has urged the North to reconsider its decision to launch a rocket, but has refrained from directly criticizing Pyongyang.
A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman has stated that maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in northeast Asia is in the interest of and the joint responsibility of all concerned parties, while asking them not to make any move that could worsen the problem.
Interestingly enough, the statement came in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s meeting with a Chinese delegation headed by a vice chairman of the National People’s Congress who also delivered a letter to the North Korean leader from newly promoted Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平). If Xi’s letter was to convey Beijing’s concern on maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and to persuade Pyongyang to refrain from launching a rocket again, he does not seem to have made any headway.
This is not the first time that Pyongyang has remained defiant and ignored the wishes of its “big brother.” In March, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), at the behest of US President Barack Obama, tried to rein in the North, asking Pyongyang to scrap its plan to launch a satellite the following month. The launch went ahead, but failed.
Why is Pyongyang able to reject Beijing’s requests with impunity? The reality is that the Chinese leadership sees its national interests as being best served by a stable and secure North Korean regime, and is determined to do what it takes to preserve the “status quo” on the Korean Peninsula.
Unlike the US and its allies, China is not worried about having a nuclear-armed North Korea, and strategists in Beijing view Pyongyang as an important asset, not only as a strategic buffer, but also a useful diplomatic pawn in its dealings with the US, Japan and South Korea.
Successive US administrations since the l990s have sought Beijing’s support in trying to restrain the North, but without success. The US’ policy of engagement and its dependence on China’s goodwill to achieve the North’s denuclearization do not work at all.
For his second term, Obama needs a new strategy, one that does not outsource the problem of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons to Beijing, which is pursuing its own, quite different, agenda. The current US approach of seemingly endless dialogue on the North that yields no practical results is a well-worn path, a path that will eventually lead to a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Parris Chang is chair professor of General Education at Toko University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.