North Korea’s recent satellite should come as no surprise, given Pyongyang’s repeated attempts to acquire such technology in the face of international condemnation, but the announcement is nonetheless unnerving.
Still, rather than intensified pressure and aggressive military posturing that is sure to threaten Pyongyang (and China), the U.S. should undertake confidence-building measures in an attempt to forge an environment receptive to a larger, more inclusive deal.
The first important fact to keep in mind when considering next steps with North Korea is that the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket is the first such success story. An intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead is still several difficult stages away. Confidence in the rocket is still far from the levels necessary to utilize the Unha-3 as an offensive weapon, let alone a carrier device for potential miniaturized nuclear warheads (of which North Korea has none).
Remaining hurdles include developing the technology required for a missile to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere once it has been launched, and guidance systems for striking specified targets, all of which will take multiple tests to master. Finally even with the extended range provided by the Unha-3, the DPRK is only capable of striking parts of Alaska, where the U.S. has a number of interceptors already in place.
Secondly, a successful policy towards North Korea must take into account that the test of the Unha-3 was largely derived from internal factors.
The Unha-3 launch was likely a tribute to Kim Jong Il near the anniversary of his death as well as a showcase for North Korea’s “strong” status in the world. Such a display became especially desirable after the debacle of the North’s failed launch this April.
Additionally given the success of its first “space launch” North Korea will now be able to boast of the disparity between its space program and that of South Korea.
Finally one cannot overlook the launch’s impact on Kim Jong Un’s hold over North Korea. Reports over the past few weeks have indicated an ongoing reshuffling of top military positions within the DPRK, including Defense Minister Kim Jong Gak with General Kim Kyok-sik. The success of the missile launch may boost Kim Jong Un’s hold over the military.
Pursuing CBMs could allow for alternative outlets for the North to pursue if when addressing domestic concerns in the future.
This is not to say North Korea should be rewarded for their blatant disregard of UN resolutions specifically prohibiting them from such tests. But increasing sanctions may do little to alter North Korean policy. Instead Washington, in consultation with Beijing and other regional allies with mutual security interests, must remind North Korea of the folly in their action, while pursuing CBM’s to allow for greater communication, trust, and transparency.
One important aspect of the launch that must be investigated further are the rumors surrounding possible participation by Iranian scientists. While still lacking sound evidence, such collusion would lead to fears over information proliferation (Iran could benefit from information garnered from the launch), and the extent of cooperation between the two countries.
Isolation has failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear progress. Addressing this security challenge will therefore require a joint regional approach focused on fostering an environment suitable to more long term-overarching engagement that can address nonproliferation issues. This will take substantial time and commitment by all sides, but such efforts are the most likely to bear fruit.