By Jake Lerner, BASC Research Assistant
On Friday, North Korea’s long anticipated, much criticized, and uncharacteristically open launch of its Unha-3 rocket ended in flames. Take-away lessons from its disintegration over the Yellow Sea:
1. Kim Jong Un’s leadership is stable enough to survive failures. Even very shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death, Japanese, South Korean, and American analysts worried that a North Korean power vacuum, however temporary, would create an internal power struggle between top generals and Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s heir. Further, many speculated that any new power in the country would be forced to take an extremely aggressive stance against South Korea and the West in order to garner military and popular support and not appear weak or incompetent. Although such fears have proved largely false, Kim Jong Un’s ability to shake off a substantial military-technological failure (he was appointed to head the new National Defense Commission during a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly just hours after the mishap) demonstrates his relatively stable grip on the country.
2. The United States is willing to stick to its guns on food aid negotiations. The US recently agreed to provide food aid to North Korea in exchange for slowing its nuclear program. Prior to the rocket test, US officials warned that a launch would void the agreement and preclude American aid shipments. Despite the test’s failure, the US suspended food aid to North Korea on Friday. Since the rocket’s failure means it provided no functional threat to the US, this shows that the US is more worried about North Korean belligerence than technical or military prowess.
3. North Korea is far from being a direct nuclear threat to the West. The obvious lesson from the Unha-3 failure is that the DPRK still lacks the technological prowess to consistently launch satellites. The technology required to launch satellites into orbit (very large and accurate rockets) is similar to that required for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, so North Korean missiles capable of hitting the US are hardly a near-term threat. In an interview, President Barack Obama said that the test is consistent with a pattern of North Korean technological failures, but that the country’s willingness to carry out the test was still cause for alarm. That said, North Korea’s rare willingness to admit the launch’s failure to its own public means advanced rocket capabilities aren’t currently a centerpiece of the DPRK’s internal policy portrayal. However, North Korea’s ability to carry out a nuclear attack on American troops and the huge population center of allied Seoul makes an ability to actually strike the west a more symbolic than practical concern.