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How the North Korean Missile Failed and What’s Next on Kim Jong-un’s List

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Toon by Lee Scott, words by Iwazaru

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After the embarrassing failure of North Korea’s Unha (the galaxy) 3 missile last Friday morning, officials in the North waited four hours to inform the journalists inside the country to cover the event, and others surrounding the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth, that the reports they’d gotten from contacts outside the country were in fact correct. The estimated $450 million rocket broke up into some 20 pieces less than two minutes after take-off and fell into the Yellow Sea.

What South Korean intelligence experts estimate to be an $850 millionexperiment resulted in a fireworks display and particles floating in the sea, all of which haven’t been, as of yet, recoverable by 10 South Korean vessels scouring the sea 150 kilometers off the west coast.

This was the fourth launch of its kind:

  • In 1998, the North sent a rocket over Japan that it claimed carried a satellite; it also failed and no sign of any satellite were ever recovered.
  • In 2006, the North launched another rocket that broke up less than a minute later, scattering debris into the sea off of Japan and Russia. 
  • In 2009, a third rocket supposedly carrying a satellite reportedly stayed in flight more than 10 minutes and, according to the North, successfully put the satellite into orbit where it was broadcasting patriotic tunes across the universe. 

The difference this time is the un-Kimian style of maneuvering and calculation.  Earlier this year news came out that North Korean and American officials had agreed on a food-for-denuclearization deal, whereby the U.S. would ship 240,000 metric tons of food aid in exchange for the North allowing IAEA inspectors back into the country, ceasing all enrichment activities and not engaging in missile tests.  Yet, in mid-March, the deal went up in smoke when the North announced it would be sending a satellite into orbit on a long-range missile, something that went not only against the verbal agreement (no, the U.S. did not make the North sign a document), but–according to those who follow UN code– also against resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009).  The North, in response, insisted that it had the “sovereign right” to develop its space program.

But the order of things just doesn’t seem right, as if the kid is playing as the father in an international game of chess.  Would Kim Jong-il have gone through with the aid agreement prior to the missile launch?  As Andre Lankov wrote, “When he died, it might be that nobody in the bureaucracy bothered to notice that launch preparations and negotiations essentially canceled one another out, and never changed plans.”  It doesn’t seem that it would have taken anyone with half a brain to figure that one out.  All they’d have to do is look back at those previous launches to see that the international community (and especially the U.S.) does not take kindly to such “provocations.”  Nonetheless, it would have been naive and downright dumb to set up the deal and then announce a missile test–however they labeled it–without at least pausing to wonder what one would do to the other.  Lankov went on to observe:  “This would suggest that absent Kim Jong Il, there is not (yet) anyone in Pyongyang capable of managing complex strategic matters the way he did.”

No one knows what’s next outside of the North (and maybe not inside) but most expect a nuclear test to occur, and sooner than later.  This, largely, is based on the past when the North stuck to the Kimian playbook which laid out a three-step process:  Do something to rile the international community; Do something else (perhaps more brazen) to point out that you are indeed alive, well and on the edge; negotiate to get what you want in exchange for ending your recalcitration.  It’s not complicated.  And new satellite images showing piles of earth and sand at a suspected testing site may confirm such a test.  That’s if the kid is following a plan.  In his first speech Sunday, April 15, he declared that the “first, second and third” points on his agenda are the military first policy or “songun.”  Other words in the speech may further indicate the likelihood of a nuclear test: “The days are gone forever when our enemies could blackmail us with nuclear bombs,” he said. 

Following Friday’s missile failure, a nuke test may be all the more necessary to show that he’s walking the talk.

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