Why did North Korea launch a rocket?
A North Korean soldier stands guard in front of the rocket days before its launch
April 12th, 2012
08:08 PM ET

Why did North Korea launch a rocket?

By Jamie Crawford

With North Korea's launch of a rocket that most see as cover for a ballistic missile test, a deal to resume food aid from the United States now dead, the loud chorus from the international community that was already condemning the act as an unnecessary provocation is only likely to grow louder in the coming days.

"They have nothing to gain and only further isolation to anticipate should they go ahead with this," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on CNN's John King, USA earlier this week.

The United States and its allies had been if anything unambiguous with their thoughts on the launch. So just why did Pyongyang go ahead with the launch? There is no shortage of answers or theories to that question, but many analysts who follow the country say the regime simply does not have that much to lose, and thus need not weigh much in the way of costs versus benefits going forward.

"How much more isolated can you get?" asks James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The United Nations has sanctioned North Korea many times over for its provocative acts of the past, and the country's largest economic and political benefactor China, is unlikely to support any additional penalties at the Security Council this time.

"There may be some financial sanctions that the United States and its friends can unilaterally apply, but this is already by a long way the most isolated country on Earth," Acton said. "The truth is that our ability to inflict significant costs on North Korea is not all that large."

The timing of the launch was not coincidental, and that too played into the North Korean calculus. For years, North Korea has been planning to mark 2012 as a year in which it would show the world it has become a great and prosperous nation. In homage to the centenary of the country's founder Kim ill Sung, his son and successor Kim Jong-Il had ordered the launch of the satellite around the birthday of Kim Il Sung on April 15.

With a leadership succession to Kim Jong Un following the death of his father in December, many Korea watchers say the North could not back down from the launch because it would also serve to fracture the succession process, and expose faults and flaws in the system.

"It's become part of the national identity and nation building, it's not simply a disguised ballistic missile test," says Victor Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and author of the book "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future."

For Cha, the launch is part of a national process of building a narrative and myth about the new young leader. For his grandfather Kim il Sung, the constructed narrative was that of a founding father of the 'workers paradise,' and for Kim Jong-il it was the development of a nuclear program to complement its ballistic missile technology as a means of protecting the nation from outside forces.

"They need to build a new myth for him," Cha says of Kim Jong Un. Part of that myth is "the notion of trying to reach new technological heights with indigenous technology, not relying on others. So space is the frontier they want to conquer."

There is likely a military component to the launch as well.

While the North portrays it as solely about putting a satellite in orbit to add an air of international legitimacy, the technology of launching satellites and ballistic missiles are similar, and the need to further test their military defense capabilities is needed to move forward.

"This is about developing a long range ballistic missile that is capable of hitting the United States," said Acton with Carnegie.

Before he left office, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced concerns over the North's military aims. "North Korea now constitutes a direct threat to the United States," he said in an interview with Newsweek while voicing concern over possible future missile technology that would be more difficult to preemptively destroy. "They are developing a road-mobile ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic missile]. I never would have dreamed they would go to a road-mobile before testing a static ICBM."

"North Korea needs these [static missile] tests to develop missile technology," that could lead to advancement in mobile-delivery technology Acton said.

And the legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan may also be playing into the North's thinking as well.

"It's not just politics, it's the very life of the system and at the same time it sends a strong message to the world," said Cha. As Director of Asian Affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, Cha said his North Korea interlocutors told them their large military buildup was largely a product of seeing that Iraq and Afghanistan lacked nuclear weapons, and would never have been attacked had they possessed them.

Continuing a campaign of military advancement is a small price to pay to avoid a future U.S. attack in the North's mind Cha says. "For them, they lose a little bit of food [aid], but in the end, its a win win for them at least in their own way of thinking."

"Its always at best educated guess work with the North Koreans," says Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, and author of the book "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis."

Chinoy, who traveled to North Korea many times as a CNN correspondent, says there is more than just birthday celebrations and national defense capabilities at work. The North's mortal enemy and neighbor, South Korea, is a factor as well. "There is a little bit of North-South competition here," he told CNN.

For decades, South Korea has been trying to put a satellite in orbit without any success. "If the North could actually get whatever this thing is on top of their rocket into orbit, they can trumpet that as a triumph over the South."

Most analysts who follow North Korea see a familiar script being re-written with North Korean provocation being followed by global condemnation, and a period of further isolation from the international community. Satellite, ballistic missile test or both, the regime appears certain in its abilities to weather the storm once again.

Chinoy says the invitation to a large contingent of foreign media by North Korea to visit the launch site and report the launch from inside the country is a sign the new regime is very confident of its hold on power, and keep control of events. "I have been there enough to know that the slightest twinge of anxiety and the door just slams shut."

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Filed under: North Korea • Nuclear • Security Brief
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