North Korea’s successful missile launch now presents Pyongyang as on the cusp of joining the elite club of nations with nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). That is quite a turn around for the young Kim Jong Un, suddenly thrust into power a year ago, whose first attempt at launching a three-stage missile, during the April centennial of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, was a show that flopped before a global audience.
Shorn of North Korea’s legendary propaganda, the country has been steadily increasing its missile ranges to the point where it can reach not just U.S. bases in Japan, but also those in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska. The estimated range of 3,400 miles for the Unha-3 puts the capability at the gateway of an ICBM. While touted as a peaceful satellite space launch, all that North Korea needs to do is to now marry up its long-range missile with a nuclear warhead. It appears determined to achieve that mark.
Fewer than 10 countries are believed to have nuclear weapons and perhaps only seven have ICBMs. While North Korea has a penchant for marketing failure as achievement, it truly has something about which to boast when it comes to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The North is believed to have enough fissile material for a dozen or more nuclear weapons, and it could reveal a new ability to fashion a miniaturized warhead anytime in the next year or so.
Skeptics who dismiss North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities should remember that these military programs siphon off a huge percentage of the country’s meager gross domestic product, with perhaps a quarter of its GDP spent on defense. Moreover, it receives technical assistance from Iran and has previously been helped by black marketeers such as Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network.
Of course, North Korea’s capabilities have come at enormous cost to the people of that country. The United Nations estimates that one-fourth of North Korea’s 24 million people are malnourished, and two-thirds rely on government rations to survive. In the latest Transparency International index on corruption, North Korea ranks dead last.
Yet while neighboring South Korea is one of the world’s most successful economies (a member of the Group of 20 and 15th in GDP), it is North Korea that has long-range missiles and a nuclear-weapons program. When North Korea chooses to reveal its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, it will have what it believes is the ultimate insurance policy and bargaining chip: a nuclear ICBM capable of hitting U.S. territory.
Adhering to the ancient military maxim that all war is deception, North Korea preceded its launch with well-timed misinformation. Reports that the launch window needed to be extended in order to repair technical problems were quickly followed with a launch on the first day of favorable weather.
Kim Jong Un appears bent on achieving permanent nuclear-weapon-state status for North Korea. Kim 3.0’s about-face on a missile and nuclear moratorium, missile diplomacy, and recent revelations about proliferation off the Korean Peninsula undercut hopes that the younger leader with an outgoing style is pursuing reform. The peninsula remains the most militarized zone in the region, and a single provocation along the lines of either the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 could escalate and bring not just the two Koreas to blows, but also risk war between their major-power allies, the United States and China.
South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, who remains ahead in presidential polling ahead of elections on December 19, has called for North Korea to follow the example of Burmese reform. She is likely to seek an inter-Korean summit meeting; but the risks to the Kim family regime may be too great to allow significant political and economic opening. In this sense, North Korea may be more akin to the Soviet Union than China, and any relaxation of the means of central government authority may trigger a sudden loss of power of the Pyongyang elite.
Paradoxically, the successful trajectory of North Korea’s missile makes the future trajectory of North Korea and the Kim regime even less certain than ever before. Its economy is unsustainable, the potential for escalation over future provocations is considerable, and there are real questions about whether Kim can successfully suppress opposition from consolidating the power that his father and grandfather held. Scholar Robert Collins has analyzed the seven phases of state collapse, and North Korea’s recent rapid replacement of defense chiefs could signal that the country is on the verge of moving from active suppression of emerging factions to open resistance of those factions against the central government. A rising Asia will have to navigate potential conflict and sudden change involving North Korea.
In the long run, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are very likely to represent Pyrrhic victories for the Kim regime unless it can institute serious reforms. Rather than being welcomed by investment, it will now face yet another round of sanctions. It may be saved from biting financial measures by the political transitions in surrounding countries, starting in South Korea, where the next president is determined to seek a summit meeting with Kim. But a penalty must be exacted on the North’s defiance, and that will come through military upgrades to South Korea’s military, the U.S. defense posture on and near the peninsula, and in Japan. Boosted by the recent success of Israel’s Iron Dome defenses, the three countries may well move in the direction of a regional missile shield.
North Korea has displayed its capabilities, and now the international community is faced again with whether it can muster effective responses. That’s a challenge, not least because goals differ. China, for instance, favors preserving stability and averting conflict, while the United States wishes to contain and dismantle the North’s burgeoning WMD systems. China’s new leadership under Xi Jinping is eager to demonstrate the Beijing’s ally is not out of control, but it is unlikely to come down hard on North Korea, given that doing so could risk upheaval or provocations that might trigger war.
A new Japanese government will now have even greater cause to expand its missile and other defenses, while seeking closer cooperation with South Korea and the United States. And the Obama administration, even in the midst of transitioning its national security team, will have to demonstrate strength while crafting a shared approach to the North Korean challenge with a new South Korean government seeking inter-Korean rapprochement.
North Korea has chosen its timing well. But whether it can withstand its own internal contradictions, coupled with future international steps aimed at graduating pressure on the regime when it conducts provocative acts, is another matter.