What's next after third North Korea rocket launch?


Kim Il Sung leads a cheering crowd in a North Korea propaganda painting, Aug. 2011.
Photo credit: 
Flickr/Joseph Ferris III

After stirring international media attention and drawing criticism from its neighbors and the United States, North Korea’s controversial launch of a rocket under the guise of installing an “Earth observation” satellite in orbit took place on Apr. 13.

David Straub, associate director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program, assesses the likely responses of the United States and other concerned countries, and provides historical context for the actions of North Korea’s leadership.

How is the launch going to impact North Korea’s relations with the United States and other countries?

We have already “been there, done that.” This will be the third North Korean test of a long-range rocket in six years. Shortly after the launches in 2006 and 2009, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear devices. The concern is that they will again use the expected international condemnation of their launch as a pretext for conducting another nuclear test.

But sometimes experience changes perspective. The United States and other countries will want to try to respond to the rocket test in a way that complicates any North Korean effort to justify a new nuclear test.

The international community really cannot remain silent, because United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1874, which was passed in 2009, forbids North Korea from conducting precisely this kind of launch. I anticipate the UNSC will meet to discuss the situation but will not be able to issue a formal resolution. It will probably wind up issuing only a UNSC presidential statement criticizing the launch. China is the main obstacle. It does not approve of North Korea’s activities, but it is more concerned that putting great pressure on North Korea will result in instability. 

The United States, South Korea, and Japan will continue to consult and coordinate closely with one another. They may take additional measures to collect intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. They may also look to bolster their cooperation on missile defense, and take further steps to restrict North Korea’s access to nuclear- and missile-related materials and technology. They may apply additional economic sanctions to show their disapproval of North Korea’s actions.

Do you think the launch is going make it more difficult for North Korea to conduct trade and obtain aid and development assistance?

North Korea’s behavior now is part and parcel of its behavior over the past several decades. For the North Korean regime, the wellbeing of its people is clearly a secondary priority compared to its own survival.

At least since the end of the cold war, North Korea has faced a dilemma: Open up or fail, or open up and fail. In other words, it needs to open up to receive outside investment and technology if it is ever to have a successful economy. If it does not do that, the regime is unsustainable over the long run. But North Korea’s leaders fear that opening to the outside world would bring down their regime because it will expose the country’s weaknesses to its people. In order to get out of this dilemma, they have reached for weapons of mass destruction—particularly nuclear devices and the missiles they hope eventually can carry them. That is why there is no indication the North Korean leadership is prepared to completely give up those programs, at least on any terms that the United States, Japan, or South Korea could accept.

This is a long-term challenge for the United States and its allies. We have to see the situation for what it is, and deal with it accordingly. That means we must never “accept” North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. As long as North Korea maintains these programs, we must make it clear that we will not establish diplomatic relations or ease sanctions. But that also does not mean that we should not continue to hold out to North Korea the possibility of a negotiated settlement, should it really be prepared to completely give up these programs.  

What are some of the key things to keep in mind about North Korea’s recent actions and about the country in general?

To understand what North Korea is doing, we have to get back to basics. The fundamental situation stems from the 1945 division of the Korean Peninsula into two separate states. North Korea’s Stalinist-style system developed into a totalitarian dictatorship with a personality cult, and it has been spectacularly unsuccessful, especially compared to its rival state South Korea.

The leaders in North Korea are reasonably well-informed and intelligent people. They saw what happened to the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and decided it would not happen to them. For them, the lesson was: Do not open up or even receive aid, unless it is completely controlled to minimize outside influences. Most of the North Korean elite believes their regime is the legitimate Korean regime. They also understand that regime collapse could well mean absorption of the North by the South, and the possibility that they could go on trial for crimes against their own people. I anticipate that most of the elite will try very hard to hold the regime together in the coming years, even if it means continuing to pursue nuclear and missile programs and threatening and even attacking South Korea again.

But sooner or later major change is inevitable in such a rigid system. This requires the concerned countries to have a clear-headed analysis of the situation, take a long-term perspective, and consistently implement a principled policy. It is very challenging to do this with so many countries involved. But it can be done. Over the long term, the strengths of democracies far outweigh their weaknesses in dealing with countries like North Korea.