North Korea's rocket 'provocation' for domestic reasons?

A successful rocket launch by North Korea on Dec. 12 is being condemned internationally as a provocation but experts say the reasons behind it are probably domestic.
North Korean scientists work as a screen shows the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket being launched from a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang Dec. 12. (KCNA/Reuters)

North Korea's successful rocket launch on Wednesday produced the expected international condemnation. But in North Korea itself, the news provoked applause and "dancing in the streets," according to Associated Press.

While some reports link the timing of the test to upcoming elections in South Korea and Japan, the dancing may reveal more about why North Korea made its move now.

The last attempted rocket launch by North Korea, in April, was timed for the centenary of the birth of the country's first and longest ruler, Kim Il-sung. That launch ended in failure.

North Koreans dance to celebrate their country's rocket launch in Pyongyang, in this photo taken by Japanese news agency Kyodo, Dec. 12. North Korea successfully launched a rocket on Wednesday, boosting the credentials of its new leader and stepping up the threat it poses to its neighbours. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Yesterday's launch could have been timed to celebrate the first anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung's son and successor, Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17, and the ascension of the latter's own son and successor, Kim Jong-un, the current leader.

Korea expert David Kang sees the launch as intended more for internal reasons than international. "It's further evidence that Kim Jong-un has consolidated his leadership position" and now he can claim the credit, Kang told CBC News.

Kang considers it significant that Kim felt comfortable enough with his hold on power "to try the missile launch, especially when it could very well fail."

Diminishing power of the military?

Kang directs the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California and is the co-author of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.

And he says it is important to see this launch not just as an international provocation – it defied two UN Security Council directives – but more as a reflection of diminishing military influence over the North Korean regime.

David Kang, co-author of 'Nuclear North Korea,' says North Korea's rocket launch was much more for domestic purposes than external consumption. (Courtesy David Kang/University of Southern California)

In the last few months Kim Jong-un has dismissed or demoted four senior military leaders.

"It seems pretty clear that Kim Jong-un is clearing the military ranks of potential opposition and the [ruling] Workers Party of Korea is increasingly getting control over key posts," Kang said.

Another observer, Paul Evans of UBC's Centre for Korean Research, seems to agree. He told CBC Radio's Rick Cluff that for Kim, "being tough on the missile side may allow him to legitimate what he's trying to do with the domestic transition."

Evans adds, however, that unless North Korea shows "some real signs of an economic opening, then we are going to be into a new phase of confrontation."

Launch 'makes no sense' internationally

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, happened to be in South Korea when the launch took place and had written about the impending launch  a week earlier.

Scott Snyder, the co-editor of 'North Korea in Transition' and author of 'China's Rise and the Two Koreas,' says the rocket launch makes no sense if North Korea is trying to influence the international agenda. (Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations)

Snyder spoke to CBC News from Seoul after the launch, which he said "represents a significant step forward" in advancing North Korea's military capabilities.

However, "in terms of trying to influence the international agenda, on almost every count, it just makes no sense," he observed.

While Snyder agrees that showcasing a ballistic missile launch serves Kim's domestic goals, "a test now serves to be counter-productive to some of North Korea's baseline interests vis-à-vis the international community."

North Korea's announcement that it planned to carry out the launch had already resulted in Japan breaking off talks, which had only recently begun.

Two weeks earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama had publicly offered his country's "extended hand" if North Korea would give up its provocations and join the international community.

Even China, North Korea's closest ally, cannot be happy about the timing, given the existing tensions in East Asia. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman expressed regret about the launch.

For its part, North Korea says it carried out the launch in order put a weather satellite in orbit. Elsewhere it was condemned as a thinly veiled ballistic missile test in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

Last week, Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that "the IAEA has not been able to implement any verification measures in North Korea for more than three years."

This launch is likely to lead to more pressure on North Korea for that implementation to happen.

South Korean elections

South Korea's presidential candidates Moon Jae-in, left, of the main opposition Democratic United Party and Park Geun-hye of ruling Saenuri Party return to their seats after posing before a televised debate in Seoul Dec. 4. Conservative Park, the daughter of late South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee, and Moon, a former human rights lawyer, participated in a debate over security policy as North Korea readied the rocket launch that it would take place on Dec. 12. The South goes to the polls Dec. 19. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

In South Korea, the two leading candidates in the Dec. 19 presidential election, conservative Park Geun-hye and opposition candidate Moon Jae-in, have both advocated peaceful re-engagement with the North, Park more cautiously and Moon more aggressively, according to Snyder.

The current South Korean government has had a confrontational stance towards the North.

Snyder notes that while there has been "a long tradition of North Korean provocative actions designed to influence South Korean election outcomes," he can't see how this missile launch helps Moon, who seems to be the North's favored candidate.

There does seem to be agreement among the Korea experts that the launch is a serious development. "Nobody wants North Korea to be developing these missile capabilities, potentially selling them to a Syria or an Iran," Kang said.

However, he also said it doesn't change the military equation very much.

North Korea already has short-range missiles that could reach South Korea and much of Japan. "It still doesn't give them the capacity to hit Canada or the United States," he observed.

What's more, before North Korea can be sure its missiles will go up and land at least near their intended targets, it will need to conduct many more tests. And also make sure its bombs will explode.

For Kang, the launch means the country is a step closer to these goals, "but realistically this doesn't make them any more dangerous today than they were yesterday."

What next?

Kang does not expect the U.S. to move towards any type of formal engagement with North Korea, something Washington hasn't attempted in years.

North Korea's successful rocket launch on Dec. 12 follows a failed attempt in April. After that failure, and despite international condemnation, the North Koreans signaled that they would attempt more rocket launches. (CBC)

He does, however, expect Seoul and Washington to try to co-ordinate on policy and if the new government in Seoul wants to move towards engagement with the North, he expects the U.S. will go along with that.

Snyder notes that the current dynamic actually runs the risk of encouraging provocative action by North Korea. "It means that North Korea can only get attention if it engages in provocation."

"We need to step back and really figure out how to change that dynamic," he argues.

When asked about North Korea's next move, Snyder would only say that, "the key to understanding what North Korea is likely to do is in their response to whatever comes out of the UN."

He also said, "I have learned a long time ago that the first rule for North Korea watchers is never predict what North Korea is going to do."