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Learning from North Korea’s missile tests: deterrence, legitimacy and survival

It’s impossible to separate North Korea’s defensive ambitions from its leadership transition. EPA/KCNA South Korea

In March, North Korea’s external propaganda mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency announced the impending launch of a satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3, during a four-day launch window timed to correspond with the centenary of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s birth on April 15.

Most foreign observers view the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch as cover for a long-range, multi-stage missile test.

This event is instructive for a number of reasons, arguments about the morality of the launch aside. First, the relative success the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch will indicate whether Pyongyang has the capability to deliver a nuclear payload to targets at distances beyond 1,000 kilometres.

Second, the launch fits with a longer trend of provocations dating back to the 2010 Cheonan incident, in which a South Korean navy ship was sunk near North Korean waters. These provocations have been linked to the legitimacy of the leadership transition.

Finally, with the negotiation of a nuclear and missile testing freeze with the United States in February, the launch may be another engineered crisis intended to maximise Pyongyang’s bargaining leverage.

Long-range missiles and North Korea’s nuclear deterrent

Aspiring nuclear armed powers have to overcome three technical hurdles in order to make their nuclear deterrent operation:

  1. Develop a functional explosive nuclear device,

  2. Develop reliable systems to deliver nuclear payloads to targets, and

  3. Miniaturise nuclear devices for deployment on the available delivery systems.

North Korea fully satisfied one of these criteria by successfully testing a nuclear device in May 2009 (coming after the unsuccessful nuclear test in October 2006). Foreign observers at present are unsure of the North’s progress toward miniaturisation. However, it is the status of North Korea’s delivery systems that concerns us here.

North Korea has a history of launching satellites to cover for clandestine missile tests. On 31 August 1998, the regime tested a prototype multi-stage Taepo-dong I missile. The three rocket stages separated successfully but the final booster stage exploded, destroying the satellite.

On 5 April 2009, the DPRK launched a satellite atop an Unha-2 multi-stage rocket and though ultimately described as a failure, the final stage of the rocket did manage to fly 2,700 kilometres before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

There is little doubt about the reliability of North Korea’s short and medium range missile capability. However, the failure in testing of its long-range missiles indicates that they are in the developmental phase. The Kwangmyongsong-3 launch may provide more definitive evidence on this question.

Leadership transition and regime survival

The leadership transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un hangs like a cloud over everything happening in North Korea at the moment.

Given Kim Jong-un’s youth, there are questions about his ability to command the leadership. The young Kim needs to establish a network of institutional attachments and personal loyalties as the foundation of his claims to the leadership.

For a smooth transition to take place, he needs the support of a sizeable majority of the high-level elites, particularly within the military. The Cheonan and Yeongpyeong Island incidents in 2010 and now the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch fit this narrative as attempts to bolster Kim Jong-un’s internal legitimacy.

Questions about the leadership transition inevitably lead us to consider the viability of the North Korean state itself.

North Korea has been a borderline failed state since 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters combined with long-term decay of the country’s command economy and totalitarian political architecture to bring the Kim regime to the brink of collapse. The late leader Kim Jong-il was able to nurse the regime through this difficult period on the back of international aid and a series of ad hoc economic adjustments.

To underwrite its efforts at systemic maintenance, Pyongyang has pursued a coercive bargaining strategy that utilises deliberate, directed provocations to pressure the US and regional states into providing material inducements in exchange for de-escalation.

The aid, concessions and development assistance bargained from regional states has been critical in plugging holes in the system and allowing the regime to avoid substantive economic reforms.

With the possibility of a return to negotiations presaged by the February 2012 agreement with Washington, the Kwangmyongsong-3 launch may be another in a long line of Pyongyang’s engineered crises intended to maximise its bargaining leverage before negotiations recommence.

Viewing Kwangmyongsong-3 with eyes wide open

It is easy to get swept up in the morality drama that stirs after every North Korean provocation and miss the information that such an event provides.

The Kwangmyongsong-3 launch may tell us much about the technical progress of North Korea’s missile program and thus the operability of its nuclear weapon capability, along with the machinations of domestic politics in Pyongyang as the regime’s leadership transition unfolds.

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