Ignoring North Korea

The failure of North Korea’s rocket launch might tempt some to ignore the threat it poses. That’s a mistake.

On the eve of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket launch, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were on high alert. They installed interceptors in Okinawa and sent destroyers to the East China Sea – maneuvers that haven’t been seen for a decade. In the end, the rocket didn’t even make it into the field of the SDF’s radars, and the damage to Japan came not from the rocket, but from the fact that it took an embarrassing 45 minutes for Tokyo to announce that the launch had taken place at all.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was, and continues to be, preoccupied elsewhere. The United States has been unable to escape the Middle East, where the most urgent challenges to global security are emanating from the nuclear ambitions of Iran and a sectarian disintegration in Syria. Beijing is wholly occupied with the rollercoaster political drama unfolding in Chongqing with the downfall of populist Party Secretary Bo Xilai and the implications for the leadership transition later this year. And the launch took place almost in parallel with South Korea’s parliamentary elections, the campaigns for which were striking for the fact that there was hardly any mention of North Korea. It’s therefore understandable that the international community’s response to North Korea’s not-so-big-bang has been to make a few statements and then get on with more pressing matters. 

But precisely because its rocket failed, the threat from North Korea is reason for concern – not just in Tokyo, but globally. Success, or even just a convincing pretense of it (as with the 1993 and 2009 launches), would have gone a long way toward satiating the need of the North Korean regime to consolidate its precarious grip on power.

While the regime has presented a surprisingly united front in the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s death, reports out of the country suggest that the absolutist hold on power is in need of some consolidation. The inevitable flow of information is fraying the totalitarian fabric that keeps the North Koreans in tow, the regime is desperate for cash, and there’s an increasing and unhappy reliance on China both politically and economically. The rocket launch was supposed to be a symbol of North Korean national pride, a declaration of self-determination, and a demonstration that the newly minted twenty-something dictator Kim Jung-Un was the right person to lead the country into a new age of prosperity. Instead, it has shown the country’s weaknessesand made North Korea seem like a less pressing global security threat.

Both South Korea and Japan are well aware that they weren’t the intended audience for this latest fireworks display – just pawns in a game North Korea desperately wants to keep playing with the United States. The North Korean regime has masterfully exploited its geo-strategic position for decades, maintaining its independence by playing the super powers of the day off each other in order to extract a combination of political support and hard resources. That this launch has done nothing to threaten the United States, and may even have diminished the sense of threat, only means a North Korea desperate for leverage – and it has more reliable ways to get that than technological feats.

After past failed rocket launches, North Korea has executed a nuclear test. That isn’t yet off the cards, and neither are repeats of attacks like that against the South Korean warship the Cheonan, in 2010. Unless Kim is playing a bigger game than his father did, or he’s ready to let the regime’s power slip away, it’s unlikely that the regime will allow North Korea to be an object of ridicule, rather than fear, for very long.

A successful North Korean launch would have solidified the need for stronger American leadership in Asia. Instead, North Korea’s spectacular failure has precipitated non-responses from Beijing, Seoul and Washington. And just days after the failed launch, it can even be overheard here in Tokyo that the real threat to Japan is Iran, not North Korea. For all the talk about a “pivot to Asia,” the United States’ presence still punches considerably below its collective weight given the vital national interests at stake.

As the Asian Century dawns against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and Eurozone crisis, issues like North Korea could be harbingers of greater problems to come. North Korea remains an increasingly unstable and highly militarized nuclear problem that Asia can ill-afford for its long-term future. Regardless of whether the strategy pursued is engagement or isolation, neglect isn’t an option. Sitting at the center of what is currently the most economically and geo-strategically important region in the world, North Korea matters for everyone, and its failed rocket launch only increases the chance of danger ahead.

Amy Studdart is a Program Associate and Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.