(April 18, 2012)
By Radhakrishna Rao
Much to the relief of the world, the controversial North Korean long-range rocket test which took place on 13 April ended in failure. According to media reports, the failure of this launch (from Tongchang-ri lauch complex in the far northwest bordering China) has been a major cause of embarrassment for the North Korean regime. The launch mission was meant to mark the centenary of the founding leader Kim II-sung. Of course, much before the launch, the US, South Korea and Japan had described the North Korean mission as a cover for a long-range missile test. But North Korea insisted that the mission was to place into orbit a weather watch spacecraft named Kwangmyongsong-3 (Shining Star) and was peaceful in nature. According to sources at the White House, the April mission has pushed North Korea into further isolation. ”North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry,” said a White House spokesman. All said and done, North Korea is still some distance away from mastering the ballistic missile technology to deploy long-range rockets to deliver nuclear warheads.
What does this failed launch mission imply for the future course of North Korea’s defence preparedness? One possibility could be that it going in for a nuclear test as a face-saving measure. Across the border in South Korea, there is a growing fear of further provocative acts by the North including a third atomic test. This launch, believed to be carried out at the insistence of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, underscored the dominance of his personality, with the strong possibility of a backlash among the country’s elite. This second consecutive failure to get the satellite into orbit – although the country claimed success with its first launch in 2009 – has hit the ‘ego and expectations’ of the ruling dispensation in Pyongyang. According to Jong Won, a Professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, this is the first crisis facing the new leadership. ”It is inevitable that they will look to find who is responsible for the failure and I wonder what the treatment will be for those in the military and the hard-line officers who had pressed for the launch,“ observed Won. And in the scramble to fix responsibility for the failed mission, many heads are expected to roll.
As it is, Kim-Jong-Un has sufficiently strengthened his clout on the power structure of the country by elevating heads of nuclear and missile programmes to his inner circle. Strategic analysts look at these promotions as a system that adheres to the hard-line path laid out by his late father. India, which had been opposed to the North Korean rocket test, had made its displeasure clear by turning down an invitation to ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) to witness the launch.
What made North Korea invite India for this launch? One possible reason could be that it was a reaction to the offer that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made to South Korea during his March visit to Seoul of providing Indian launch support for South Korean satellites. Equally galling to the regime in Pyongyang may have been the plan to expand cooperation in the areas of space and defence between India and South Korea. The official Indian stand was that the North Korean launch mission adversely impacted peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.
The dilemma that faced China in the aftermath of the failed launch was a kind of tight-rope walk between supporting the belligerent neighbour, and addressing growing global concerns. China has asked for restraint from North Korea, and has also expressed fears that the recent developments will provide a platform for the US, Japan and South Korea to bolster their defence alliance. Although China is far from keen on North Korea going in for a third nuclear test, it cannot at the same time brush aside the strategic ambitions of North Korea. A Global Times editorial said that the North could now ”take new, unpredictable action” and urged the US, Japan and South Korea to avoid “aggravating current tension.”
Meanwhile, officials in Seoul, based on the analysis of satellites imagery, have suggested that preparations are underway for a nuclear test in North Korea.
On another front, the 13 April mission was a bold attempt at positioning North Korea as a “strong and prosperous“nation rooted in technological growth. Indeed, in the face of acute food shortages and economic crisis, North Korea wanted to focus on boosting its military muscle with this much hyped space launch. Further, the success of the space launch would have also helped Kim Jong-un, who took over in December 2011 as the leader of the country, to consolidate his position and tighten his grip over the defence set-up of the country.
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