Rockets and Pyongyang


There is a lot of noise at the moment on the Korean Peninsula.  One might argue that there always is, but on this occasion, interest is centred on whether the DPRK will test a new disguised ballistic missile, ostensibly to launch satellite into space sometime this month.  Officially, the test has been pushed back to December 29th. South Korean sources claim that the delay was occasioned by a faulty component in the Unha-3 rocket.

What a busy month this is proving to be.  The first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, to be marked on December 17th; the South Korean presidential elections, slated for December 19th; and the Japanese elections on December 16th.  Add to this the arrival of China’s new leader Xi Jinping, and we have a considerable fruit salad of variables (The Economist, Dec 1).

Washington and its allies insist that the launch will violate UN resolutions connected with Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.  The reason is not the interest in the satellite, but fears that putting such a rocket into space successfully suggests that the North Korean regime will be able to send the rocket to more terrestrial targets.

The Japanese government, precisely on this point, has threatened action against the rocket, should it be fired and veer its way through Japanese airspace.  Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in early December, spoke of issuing orders on the part of his defence minister “to prepare for the interception and defence against ballistic missiles” (ABC, Dec 3).

The old line is bound to be pursued – more sanctions, more limitations on the DPRK.  Washington’s approach is tried and ineffective.  When the failed April test eventuated, the Obama administration wished to tighten the noose, abandoning discussions for a food-aid deal.  China baulked at the suggestion.  “China sets the maximum response level in the Security Council when it comes to North Korea, claimed a senior South Korean government official.  “So the existing list of UN sanctions on the North is essentially China’s list.”

Repeatedly, Chinese influence over the DPRK has been exaggerated.  One example stands out.  Models of economic reform have been suggested to Pyongyang – the Chinese “miracle” of Market Leninism, the sort of approach which, should it be deployed in North Korea, would probably precipitate a collapse.  While the Chinese refuse to entertain that toxic idea of “regime change”, they are content to encourage change by example. But such miracles have not enticed the North Koreans.

Wang Dong, director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University, puts it bluntly.  “If you think that because I give you economic aid, and I give you energy, then I can bring you to your knees, I can pressure you to listen to me, you become my puppet, it would be an illusion.”

The problem here with Pyongyang is that speculation is the only thing that is certain.  Smokescreens are a permanent feature of the conversation, if it can even be called it that.  Since the foolish measures undertaken by the Bush administration in 2003 to embroil itself and its allies in a bloody conflict in Iraq, Pyongyang has been wary to tone down the rhetoric.  When in doubt, exaggerate the incinerating potential of one’s arsenal and hope for the best.  The nuclear option is a sovereign option.

More to the point, it has made the obtaining of a viable nuclear option critical.  It is no surprise that another country keen to acquire a nuclear option – Iran – has sent its own experts to Pyongyang to offer “technical assistance” for the rocket launch.  Japan’s Kyodo news agency, and an assortment of other sources suggest that Iranian defence staff have been stationed in North Korea since October (The Nation, Dec 11).

An entire literature of punditry and psycho-babble has grown up about the new “Hollywood” style leader and prospects of reform.  In truth, no one truly knows the mind of Kim Jong Un and what he might do next.  The indignant belligerence that spouts from the DPRK political structure is a reflex, and the various techniques of persuasion vary in terms of conviction and effectiveness.

It has been clear for a time now that the DPRK treasures one goal in its foreign policy above all else in the current climate: a negative security assurance from Washington that they will not be struck. Peace treaties are a secondary feature in the plan.  Till more concrete measures are undertaken in that direction, this pantomime of aggression and counter-aggression from the DPRK and its neighbours will continue. The only ones who will be profiting in this, as they always have been, will be the arms dealers and military cliques.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

November 26, 2015
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