North Korea’s Failure Is Not a Success, Ignore at Your Own Peril
On the eve of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket launch, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were on high alert. They installed interceptors in Okinawa and sent destroyers to the East China Sea — maneuvers that haven’t been seen for a decade. In the end, the rocket didn’t even make it into the field of the SDF’s radars, and the damage to Japan came not from the rocket, but from the fact that it took an embarrassing 45 minutes for Tokyo to announce that the launch had taken place at all.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was, and continues to be, preoccupied elsewhere. The United States has been unable to escape the Middle East, where the most urgent challenges to global security are emanating from the nuclear ambitions of Iran and a sectarian disintegration in Syria. Beijing is wholly occupied with the rollercoaster political drama unfolding in Chongqing with the downfall of populist Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the implications for the leadership transition later this year. And the launch took place almost in parallel with South Korea’s parliamentary elections, the campaigns for which were striking for the fact that there was hardly any mention of North Korea. It’s therefore understandable that the international community’s response to North Korea’s not-so-big-bang has been to make a few statements and then get on with more pressing matters.
But precisely because its rocket failed, the threat from North Korea is reason for concern — not just in Tokyo, but globally. Success, or even just a convincing pretense of it (as with the 1993 and 2009 launches), would have gone a long way toward satiating the need of the North Korean regime to consolidate its precarious grip on power.
While the regime has presented a surprisingly united front in the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s death, reports out of the country suggest that the absolutist hold on power is in need of some consolidation. The inevitable flow of information is fraying the totalitarian fabric that keeps the North Koreans in tow, the regime is desperate for cash, and there’s an increasing and unhappy reliance on China both politically and economically. The rocket launch was supposed to be a symbol of North Korean national pride, a declaration of self-determination, and a demonstration that the newly minted twentysomething dictator Kim Jung-Un was the right person to lead the country into a new age of prosperity. Instead, it has shown the country’s weaknesses and made North Korea seem like a less pressing global security threat.