The Debate

Pivot and a Rocket Launch

The Diplomat’s panel at Harvard University tonight will focus on China. But North Korea will still loom large.

I’m up in Boston for a panel we’re hosting this evening with Harvard University on the U.S. pivot to the Pacific and what this means for U.S. relations with China. We have a great lineup of speakers including U.S. Representative J. Randy Forbes, who is chair of the House Armed Services Readiness Committee, Flashpoints analyst James Holmes, and a couple of other commentators that regular Diplomat readers will be familiar with, Toshi Yoshihara and Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College. Also speaking will be William Martell, a professor international security at Tufts University, and Peter Dutton of the China Maritime Studies Institute.

It should be a great evening, and it’s free to members of the public, so anyone in the Boston area interested in attending is welcome. More details are here.

But although China and the U.S. are the focus, the question of North Korea is bound to come up following the country’s decision to launch a rocket yesterday. The launch itself was essentially a failure, as neatly summed up in a CNN headline “Gone in 81 seconds.” Regardless, though, it has prompted widespread international condemnation. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: “North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, described the launch as “deplorable,” and added that “it defies the firm and unanimous stance of the international community.”

Writing today, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas has a sobering take on the implications of the failed test, not least the fact that North Korea has demonstrated once again that it has little regard for international opinion.

He also noted that: “North Korea remains a serious military threat. It still possesses as many as a dozen nuclear warheads, proven short-range missiles, and a formidable conventional fighting force. It is as much an army with a country as vice-versa.”

“Third and perhaps most immediate, the test’s failure constitutes a humiliating setback for the country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. It is likely that a principal reason for the launch was to signal his emergence and consolidate his authority. There is thus a real risk that he will turn to a tried and true path to accomplish the same ends.”

And what might a tried and tested path include? Reports before the launch were already suggesting that North Korea might be considering another nuclear test, so this certainly seems a possibility. But Pyongyang has also demonstrated a willingness to escalate through conventional means, including the sinking of the South Korean vessel the Cheonan and the shelling of the border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.

Back then, South Korea was extremely restrained. But the administration of Lee Myung-bak has indicated since that one more provocation will prompt a much tougher response. If it chooses a military strike, things could escalate very quickly indeed.