North Korea Rocket Launch: This Surprise Test Will Destabilize Northeast Asia


North Korea state media announced on Tuesday night, that the supposedly "rescheduled" missile test of its Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket had been successfully launched. "The satellite has entered the planned orbit," a North Korean television news host stated with pride, which was then followed by nationalistic songs in celebration.

This launch has been confirmed by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. But it is unclear if the missile test can be declared a "success" as the facts are still being confirmed. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said that the North Korean rocket "deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit," though it is still unknown if the object is a real or functioning satellite.

Despite North Korea's use of the "satellite program" story, the fact remains that the missile test was intended, according to experts, as a thinly veiled attempt to develop North Korea's ballistic missile capability under the pretext of developing a peaceful rocket program for "satellites" given that the rockets can be re-purposed to be a platform for nuclear weapons.

This sudden missile launch confirms what many observers see as a attempt by the North Korean government to sway the ongoing presidential election in South Korea and undermine regional security, in northeast Asia, during a time when tension are already high with territorial disputes between China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

While the intended effect of North Korea's recent missile test is a subject of debate, there can be no doubt that this course of action exacerbates the palpable feeling of regional insecurity in northeast Asia. In short, the North Korean missile launch can be equated with adding fuel to smoldering regional political upheavals and disputes brewing in the region.

A History of Epic Failures

The "successful" missile test from Tuesday is part of a troubling trend for North Korea. Since the communist state started launching long-range missiles in 1998, there have been four failed missile tests, ranging from the epic failure of a launch this past April — during which the foreign press was invited to witness the North Korean missile burst moments after launch — to the more successful launches in previous years.

The North Korean missile program started with Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un's grandfather, using the idea of chuch’e or self-reliance, an "ambiguous concept that encompasses strong nationalism and the rejection of colonialism," for defending the country against a feared American invasion.

With the help of the Russians and limited aid from China, North Korea started its ballistic missile in the late 1970s, which was ran parallel to its nuclear program. The North Koreans launched numerous missiles during this period, most of which failed or became short-ranged missiles.

By the early 2000s, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan pushed to stop the North Koreans from attaining nuclear capabilities. The United Nations Security Council, with China and Russia in attendance, passed resolutions 1718 and 1874 in 2006 and 2009 to prohibit North Korea from continuing its missile program, nuclear program and export of missile technology through economic sanctions.

The recent tests all defy the UN resolutions and are based on North Korea's need to look strong against the U.S. and South Korea.

It's All in the Timing

On Monday, North Korea state media told the world that the missile test would be delayed until December 29 due to "a technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket." This story may very well have been a ploy to lull the world into believing it had a reprieve before the storm that many dreaded as the North Koreans continued their defiant rocket program.

With the "successful" launch of the Unha-3 missile, North Korea can proclaim a victory for the three Kims that have ruled the nation since the end of World War II. According to Briam Kim of PolicyMic, it doesn't matter whether or not it was a "success," as Kim Jong-un would have to labeled it as such regardless to cement his one-year-old regime.

It is, therefore, not surprising that North Korea official media would describe the surprise missile launch as follows:

"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung."

A far less benign effect is that the North Korean breakthrough will harden South Korea's view towards reconciliation with its southern half. It also tests the strength of the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance. Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations remarked that "[f]or two decades, North Korea’s nuclear push has been the single most effective catalyst for regional cooperation in Northeast Asia."

This happens to be a tenuous time for the alliance as Japan-South Korea Relations and Sino-Japanese Relations are at an all-time low in the 21st century over territorial disputes. The ongoing election in both South Korea and Japan only adds to the menagerie of challenges faced by the leaders of these countries, China's new leaders and the U.S.

To be sure this test is not unusual. Victor Cha, of the Center for Strategic International Studies, notes that "the North Koreans have done a provocation within an average of 18 weeks after every South Korean election dating back to 1992." But it exacerbates the other rising tensions in the region.

The timing is really bad when one considers the effect on regional security as it has far reaching effects beyond Northeast Asia.

The Rocket's Exhaust

Where does this show of power leave the U.S. and its allies? According to Cha, a successful launch this time around has dire consequences for all of Asia as this missile test has special significance as North Korea will have "the ballistic missile launch technology to fly a missile possibly 4,000 to 6,000 kilometers."

This means that North Korea "has crossed a major threshold in terms of mating an ICBM with a nuclear weapon." This dangerous missile technology may also be exported to other new nuclear powers under scrutiny like Iran and Pakistan, both of whom have purchased North Korean missile in the past, thus undermining security across Asia and into the Middle East.

This "success" will likely embolden North Korea to continue with its missile and nuclear programs.

One of the only good bits of news is that the North Koreans don't have the technology to build nuclear warheads, which requires a miniaturized reactor and a reentry vehicle. They also don't have a nuclear bomb to mount onto their missiles.

All these implications will likely come up when the UN Security Council meets in the coming days, to discuss how to respond to the North Korea's violation of its international obligations. The U.S., China, and Russia have already criticized the missile test, hinting at further sanctions to discourage future rocket launches.

North Korea is playing a dangerous game that its neighbors see as a spark on a powder keg in this corner of Asia and beyond. Kim Jong-un would do well to refrain from stirring the already troubled waters to counter an imaginary external threat and ignore internal woes.