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North Korea's Missile Test: Off-target?

North Korea's launch of a multi-stage rocket has been assessed by international experts as a technical failure, but the test has been at least a partial success in hitting four political targets: North Korea's domestic audience, exploitation of international divisions among members of the six party talks, testing of the newly-established Obama administration, and exploitation of Chinese dilemmas over how to balance multiple conflicting objectives in its North Korea policy.

Target #1: The "Song of General Kim Jong Il" Plays in North Korea

The North Korean Taep'odong-2 rocket launch has occurred days prior to the April 9th convocation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). This follows prior precedent since North Korea's 1998 Taep'odong-1 test was timed just prior to an SPA meeting and Kim Jong Il's consolidation of control over the state, party, and military institutions.

The Korean Central News Agency reported that the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite, "a shining product of self-reliance, was smoothly and accurately put into its orbit." Rumors from external media may eventually challenge North Korea's official narrative, but the message to the people of North Korea--following doubts raised by rumors of Kim's illness--is that Kim Jong Il's power remains intact, unthreatened, and unchallengeable.

Target #2: Exploiting Divisions At the UN Security Council

A secondary but equally important target of North Korea's Taep'odong launch has been the exploitation of divisions within the international community over how to respond to North Korea's provocation. Although the UN Security Council quickly convened on a Sunday afternoon within hours of the North Korean launch, there is no easy consensus among the United States, Japan, China, and Russia on whether or how North Korea should be punished for what it claimed was a peaceful satellite launch, but which utilized the same technology that North Korea had used in the 2006 failed test that was condemned by UN Security Council resolution 1695.

This time, North Korea did provide dates for the launch and offered prior notice to international aviation and maritime organizations regarding affected air routes and maritime zones. This ironic progress in North Korea's socialization to international norms did not change the fact that UN Security Council resolution 1718 condemning North Korea's 2006 nuclear test explicitly calls for North Korea to "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program," a prohibition the North clearly violated.

North Korean statements anticipating a renewed push at the Security Council threatened to walk away from the six party talks on denuclearization if the body were to criticize North Korea, asserting that any UN statement "will be regarded as a blatant hostile act against the DPRK." By threatening to walk away, North Korea has played on Chinese fears that a new resolution would spark a North Korean reaction, effectively paralyzing the Security Council's response.

Target #3: Testing the Obama Administration

A third target of North Korea's test is the Obama administration. By creating a crisis at an early stage in the administration, the DPRK is testing the Obama administration's ability to respond, magnifying its own capacity to manufacture crisis, and attempting to control the agenda and define the terms of interaction in the North's favor. North Korea used a similar strategy when it challenged a new Clinton administration by announcing its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in March of 1993. The failure of this launch and President Obama's initial response on the day he gave a major policy speech on nuclear disarmament mitigated the initial effects of the launch, but the deadlock at the UN Security Council may be regarded by the North Koreans as a success.

The challenge for the Obama administration is two-fold: how to unify the international community in condemnation of North Korea's actions, especially in light of prior precedent set by existing UN Security Council resolutions on the subject, and how to lay the groundwork for a unified international stance as a backdrop for any future negotiation process with North Korea. An overly-weak statement from the UN would allow critics to attack the administration for appeasement, while an overly-strong statement might cause the North Koreans to close off channels for negotiation. Moreover, the Obama administration must find a way to maintain its commitment to six party talks despite likely North Korean pressure on the administration to go bilateral and to defer denuclearization commitments.

Target #4: Exploiting China's DPRK Dilemma

The fourth target of North Korea's test is China. North Korea knows that China was embarrassed by its public failure to restrain North Korean missile and nuclear tests in 2006. By conducting a missile test at the start of the Sino-DPRK Year of Friendship designed to reconsolidate ties between Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea's leadership has shown that they have "tamed" China. Chinese trade and aid with North Korea continue to go up despite stagnation in the inter-Korean economic relationship. Why does China continue to pay North Korea instead of using economic leverage to achieve its political objectives? Because Chinese leaders have learned that they can't afford to utilize that leverage without suffering ill effects to its own national interests.

China's dilemma is threefold: it needs to continue to work with the United States to contain North Korea, it needs to maintain North Korean stability to avoid destabilizing spill-over effects on China, and it needs to be able to show that it still has influence in Pyongyang to persuade the United States that it can still be useful in managing Korean peninsular security issues. Stability is the first priority, then denuclearization--all the while China needs to walk a tightrope among those priorities so as to emphasize its continued stake in the process. For North Korea, snubbing China while relying on Beijing as an economic lifeline and playing on both Chinese fears of domestic instability and strategic mistrust of the United States is the sweet spot. Despite its technical failure, North Korea's test initially appears to have hit multiple political targets.

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