By Adam Motiwala, BASC Research Assistant
In a recent blog post, fellow research assistant Jake Lerner discussed some lessons that could be gleaned from the failed North Korean missile test. However, I think it is important to be hesitant when extracting such extravagant claims from a single dud missile:
1. That the regime did not collapse after the failed launch is not a sign of stability. No one reasonably expected the collapse of the North Korean regime after a single failed missile test. Just because the younger Kim still appears as the figurehead of the crumbling country, it is nonsensical to conclude that a post-Kim Jong Il power struggle is not currently underway. Instead, talk of political positioning between “hawks” and “doves” continues unabated and that the missile test happened at all might have been the result of Kim Jong Un being overruled by some unknown overlords. Furthermore, the regime might have only come clean to its people about the mishap because of a newfound fear of being unable to control the flow of information into the country, a scary prospect for the hermit kingdom. Frankly, it is far too early to speak of North Korean stability.
2. The suspension of U.S food aid is nothing new and frankly not that important. It is nothing new for the Americans to deny North Korea food aid after excessive belligerence. This should not come as a surprise to onlookers; it is not a unique outcome to North Korean actions. More importantly, it should be remembered that the North Korean elite do not necessarily care much about food aid. The regime has survived a decade of severe food shortages and mass starvation, and the North Korean elite have a history of spinning food aid cancellation as an act of Western imperial oppression. In addition, given the rumors that the North may have just manufactured its food shortage by hoarding food for the centennial, it would not come as a surprise if the North Korean top brass sought the suspension of food aid in an attempt to look strong.
3. To say North Korea is not a nuclear threat to the West misses the point. It is difficult to think of a way in which a North Korean nuke could actually change the rules of the game. The strategic calculus on the part of the Kim regime has and would remain static: occasional belligerence can make way for hard bargaining, but a nuclear attack on any country would mean instant obliteration. The claim that the North is “far from being a direct nuclear threat to the West” is a nonissue and is hardly worth noting.