Q&A: North Korea's failed rocket launch and what happens next

While North Korea's latest rocket launch was a failure, it did succeed in drawing international condemnation and raising further questions about the secretive country's national, international and nuclear ambitions.

While North Korea's latest rocket launch was a failure, it did succeed in drawing international condemnation and raising further questions about the secretive country's national, international and nuclear ambitions.

CBCNews.ca talked with Rodger Baker, vice-president of strategic intelligence for Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence firm and  think-tank, about the launch and what could come next from North Korea.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why did North Korea launch the rocket?

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket sits waiting for launch at the Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, on April 8, 2012. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press)

Rodger Baker: They really did see this from a domestic perspective as a part of this Juche 101 celebration, this 100-birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung. This is a big deal for them. They wanted to showcase domestically this sense of capability, the sense that even in isolation, this was a strong and capable government and a strong and capable regime.

All of the condemnation of the launch actually played well for what the North Koreans wanted to tell their own citizens, which is: "Everyone yells at us but we're not tools of the foreign community."

And that gives them the ability to make some agreements, if they want to make agreements later, with foreign powers because they can tell their citizens those foreign powers came to us. We didn't go begging to them and we didn't kowtow to them.

I think internationally it was again in some ways very similar in that they want to show: "Look, your sanctions don't do anything, we can still do things ourselves, and so why keep worrying about things like sanctions and isolation? Why not change your international policy on North Korea?"

Were you surprised that the rocket didn't survive?

Well, they kind of have a record of never being successful. One would have thought, given the timing of this event, the amount of time that they've been building up for the launch and prepping for this, that they would have tried harder or done something to make sure that it was going to work.

How embarrassing is the rocket failure for North Korea?

I think they really wanted this to succeed. I don't think that they wanted it to fail. They ultimately will be able to work with that.

This time they had to admit that it failed because of the foreign observers and all of the attention drawn to it and admit to their own people that it failed. And that will be a little bit of a challenge, but I think they're pretty good internally at propaganda.

I think subtley they'll be able to use this in their negotiations and say:  "Look, you know, we keep doing things and we need to do these things because we're isolated and we have to show our people we are strong, but if you would just sign a deal with us, a peace accord with us, something like that, we wouldn't have to carry out these constant things and we're not really a threat even though we look like a threat."

But that's a difficult path to walk because it also means if you're not really a threat, then why in the world does the international community need to even address you?

These Unha rockets are not really a strategic threat to the United States or anyone else. At the fastest, it's two to three days to get the thing from the assembly buildings onto the launch pad, fuelled up and get ready to launch.

There's no strategic surprise in launching one of these things so its definitely not a first-strike weapon and quite frankly it's not a second-strike weapon because once any military engagement starts to take place, these facilities are knocked out instantly.

How close is the country to having a fully functioning nuclear weapon?

Well, so far they've shown that they don't have a delivery vehicle that's functional so it's hard to tell whether they could have a weaponized version that would go on a very unreliable delivery vehicle.

If they haven't figured out by now, after four of these long-range or four of these satellite attempts, some of the basic physics and engineering principles that go into materials engineering and the stresses on the systems for the actual launch vehicle, it's questionable whether they would be able to have the capability to do so for the nuclear weapon itself, and weaponizing a nuke is more than just making it small.

It has to survive all the same forces that this rocket is surviving and as we've seen pretty continuously, the North Korean rockets don't seem to survive the forces.

At this point, can other nations influence what North Korea does?

A picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-unn is burned by anti-North Korea protesters during an anti-North Korea rally denouncing North Korea's long-range rocket launch in Seoul, South Korea, on April 13, 2012. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

I think there's very little opportunity to truly influence North Korea through threats, through sanctions. Sanctions have really not shown to do much of anything on North Korea except maybe make them waste more money on rockets that don't work. But they're still doing it. They're still working on the nuclear program.

The sanctions as a measure to try to truly influence North Korean behaviour, if anything, maybe are backfiring.

I think there could be opportunities for the United States, but I think that in dealing with North Korea, it's U.S. politics [that] really interferes. You can't be allowed to show favour to North Korea for bad behaviour. You can't have diplomatic relations with them. But what that does, in many ways it hampers the ability to influence or control North Korea because there's no regularized channels of communication.

What should we expect to see next from North Korea?

Because of both their need to demonstrate they still have some element of strength and because the international community is obviously not going to sit back and ignore the launch, we'll see probably another nuclear test in the next month or two and then some odd isolationist behaviour from the North Koreans, probably until after the U.S. and the South Korean presidential elections in November and December.

Then the North Koreans will manoeuvre themselves back and the international community will be wanting to talk again because they don't want North Korea to continue to be a stress or a threat.

Negotiations will start up and what this will have done is basically just delayed more talks which could have happened now, or they can happen later.

It doesn't necessarily mean that it ends or begins any real negotiating process. It just sort of delays things.