Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Pyongyang's missile test and rhetoric

North Korea warned Monday of “special actions” to destroy Seoul “within four minutes”. The threat comes after a failed ballistic missile launch April 13. Alongside the heightened rhetoric Pyongyang announced plans to conduct a third nuclear test on the peninsula in the coming months.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described both announcements as a threat to peace, warning North Korea against further provocative measures.

There is a pattern to North Korean rhetoric in the sense that they do not usually culminate in meaningful action.

Calling for military strikes on South Korea can sound impressive, and North Korean artillery and missile sites are within range of Seoul, but North Korean leaders are rational and know just how far to push their neighbours.  

The politics surrounding the failed April 13 launch of the ballistic rocket will keep fixed attention on the rogue state for the time being.

While Pyongyang jumped through every diplomatic hoop to make sure their launch was completely above board, going so far as to invite members of the world’s media to witness the launch, the rocket was viewed sceptically by the international community as a thinly veiled missile test.

Its effective range, had it been operational and equipped with a warhead, put both Japan and South Korea under threat. Tokyo prepared for the rocket launch by mobilising large numbers of its Self-Defence Force that must have looked to the outside viewer as war preparations.

There was even rumour of a potential intercept response from US forces to bring down the missile if it was successful in burning through to its second or third stage.

Despite the expressed criticism from the international community, Pyongyang completed testing of the launch. The rocket was unsuccessful but it is unknown at which stage the rocket failed. For North Korean rocketry, a failure can be more informative for future designs than a success.

All military systems go through preparatory and test development before they truly mature as weapons, and the North Korean project is no different. Politically the regime will have pre-positioned fall-guys it can remove to show retaliatory response to the rocket failure, but ultimately the unsuccessful test will simply pave the way to the next one and provide valuable data for the engineers.

For a country that has recently experienced crippling famine, and whose population still lives close to famine, capital funds injected into a ballistic missile system must appear to be misallocated.

But North Korea’s constant foraying into the world of advanced systems does draw attention from the international community that rightly worries about just what Pyongyang’s intentions are.

Threats and rhetoric aside, the regime has a tried and tested method to achieve political recognition and food aid by periodically ramping up perceived threats.

The international community offers aid not to soothe the fiery words, but to offset their talks as a threat in themselves. Removal of aid can encourage Pyongyang to reign in its actions. But it is a fine line they tread as Pyongyang record of unpredictability and sheer tenacity gets the upper hand in negotiation.

The Six-Party talks have moved a lot of ground over the years, and North Korea has benefited the most from these talks. The next round of rhetoric and military testing may comprise of a third nuclear test but the outcome will be the same, the pattern is simple.

The international community will respond with its own rhetoric and attempt to placate the regime with aid and entice it back to the table. And North Korea will conduct another provocative action to squeeze out more aid.

No comments: