Background: On 11 December, North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket carrying its first satellite into orbit, defying UN restrictions on conducting ballistic missile tests. As a sign of technological improvement, and in contrast to the failed launch that we discussed in April, this rocket appears to have reached its target.
The launch of the Unha-3 marks North Korea’s fifth attempt to launch a long-range ballistic missile since 1998. Pyongyang continues to claim that the sole purpose of these tests is the development of a civilian space program. Nonetheless, the launch prompted widespread condemnation within the international community, particularly from Japan and South Korea. Recent efforts to impose additional sanctions on North Korea by the U.S. and its Asian allies have been resisted by China.
Debate: Below are a range of perspectives on North Korea’s new launch including Pyongyang’s motives, the threat posed by the launch, as well as its political implications.
- Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times, reports on how the rocket launch bolsters Kim Jong-un’s image domestically amongst his malnourished population and provides him with the credibility he needs to assert his political control over the military generals. “The country’s ability to send a rocket hurtling hundreds of miles on roughly the course it set is a fulfillment of promises that have kept people loyal to the Kim dynasty for decades.”
- Brian Fung of the Atlantic argues that North Korea will not be able to count on China’s patronage forever. Although it remains unclear what course of action China will pursue, “if China becomes a guarantor of Asia’s regional security, [then] that puts it in a contradictory position with regard to North Korea.”
- Foster Klug and Matthew Pennington of the Time Magazine, point out that “a weak economy, chronic food shortages and the sanctions make it difficult to sustain a program that can build and operate reliable missiles.” In addition, they argue, it will take many years to overcome the technological barriers to build a credible missile system.
- On the other hand, Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, illustrates why North Korea should not be underestimated. “No matter whether the latest test was entirely successful or not, it has provided North Korean technicians with valuable new information. It is a significant technical accomplishment that only 10 other countries have achieved.”
- NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten answers the question, “What North Korea’s Rocket Launch Tells us about Iran’s Role”: Missile analysts think the rocket technology now used by Iran came originally from North Korea. But Jeffrey Lewis, a proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, thinks nowadays it’s the Iranians assisting the North Koreans with missile development.