By William Tucker
Since the death of Kim Jong-Il in December of last year, two assumptions were made regarding the future of North Korea. One, Kim Jong-Un would order some form of provocative behavior without any sort of public warning to assert his hold on power, and two, the new leader would enjoy unquestioned rule. The problem with these assertions stems from a common misunderstanding of how North Korea operates internally and negotiates with foreign powers. Domestic policy in the North is predicated primarily in balancing the different segments, the elites of the system, of the communist government. That is, preventing any one segment – whether the party or the military – from gaining too much power to challenge the dynastic reign of the Kim family. This held until Kim Jong-Il needed the military to consolidate his rise to power and caused a bit of stress in the system. Over the ensuing years, Jong-Il worked to reestablish this balance by engaging other functionaries of the government and ultimately creating the National Defense Council to temper the military’s growing primacy. Kim Jong-Un on the other hand is far too young and inexperienced to pull off this balancing act alone. He has support, primarily from his uncle, but that support cannot be put under any stress. At least not yet.
Pyongyang’s foreign policy front is far more compelling, and like any other nation-state, the domestic and foreign endeavors are very much entwined. In matters of foreign policy, North Korea orchestrates a seemingly odd mix of engagement juxtaposed with sometimes downright bizarre behavior. This behavior is not without purpose, however. As North Korea began to decline, Kim Jong-Il, who primarily presided over the North’s freefall, would launch some form of military or nuclear activity to compel its neighbors to return to the negotiating table. In doing so, Pyongyang had, at the time, a concession to give. The North would stop the military or nuclear activity in return for foreign aid. The regional powers, along with the U.S., would play along and Kim would publicly claim a victory over the imperialists. If Kim ever asked for foreign assistance without some form of provocation, he could be seen as weak domestically. The biggest threat wasn’t from the North Korean population, but a fear among the elites that Kim was unable to effectively lead the nation. In other words, those invested in the regime feared that their rivals among the elites could lead a coup in the wake of such perceived weakness, and thus, be removed from the equation.
Using this as a framework can help us understand the recent deal to provide North Korea with some desperately needed foreign assistance and the possibility that Pyongyang may yet void the new agreement with a rocket launch. The U.S., and perhaps China, has stated that any rocket launch, even one ostensibly used to place a satellite in orbit, would negate the new deal. North Korea has denied that the deal prohibits such a launch because the satellite would serve a civil purpose. The problem with Pyongyang’s position is that the rocket used to launch the satellite is one in the same as the nuclear delivery system that has been in the works for some time. Of course, that is the gambit North Korea is playing at. To be sure, it is a dangerous gambit for the North at this time of famine and massive starvation. For Kim Jong-Un it may be necessary, however. If he, and his brain trust uncle, is to maintain the tenuous balance, then they must push the envelope in order to gauge the reaction from Washington and Beijing. It is far too early in Kim’s rule to ask for foreign assistance without the appearance of world powers being forced to concede to North Korea’s ‘strength.’ Such a request could make the elites quite nervous.
How North Korea plays this gambit will be a good indicator of the government’s stability. Though this behavior is in keeping with tradition, it is always a gamble as the foreign powers could simply walk away from negotiations. Such a move by the U.S. and China would also be a gamble as North Korea may become more aggressive depending on their level of desperation. Another tactic that Pyongyang could attempt, and would really like to do, is to return to playing Washington and Beijing off one another. This time, however, the leaders of these two nations have attempted to head off the tactic by coordinating a unified message of dissuasion, though that can change in the wake of clashing interests between the U.S. and China. North Korea could potentially reach out to Russia, an increasing possibility given the recent string of investments, but everything from Moscow comes with a substantial set of strings attached. For Russia, it wouldn’t be a bad move considering its ties to South Korea via a set of energy deals. This, however, is speculation at the moment.
North Korea is in bad shape given the famine and its very young, untested leader. This does not mean that the nation will simply collapse overnight, but it does mean that the nation is not at the height of stability. The situation is holding for now, but North Korea’s negotiations with its neighbors will follow the familiar refrain of the past few decades albeit at a slightly more tepid pace. If the North’s situation declines further and with greater rapidity, then we can expect Pyongyang to continue along the same path but with greater urgency and aggressiveness. For now, this recent deal hasn’t been rescinded, nor has North Korea launched the rocket that is at the center of the current debate. Given this fact, and the aforementioned framework, we can now watch the moves by all the players involved and get a good sense of what can be expected on the Korean peninsula in the near future. It’s a game we’ve seen before and it is unlikely to change in the near term despite the rhetoric.
Technical aspects of the (possibly) upcoming rocket launch
North Korea has two different configurations that could be used for a satellite launch or as a nuclear payload delivery system. These are known, to the west at least, as the Taepodong-2 and the Galaxy-2 (UNHA-2). These are multistage rockets developed upon older technology very similar in nature to the basic SCUD design. The last time this type of rocket was launched, it suffered from a secondary stage separation failure. It is quite possible that this has been modified, or at least reworked, since the last launch in 2009. Should North Korea go ahead with the launch, the success, or failure, could give some very important insight into the progress of rocket development. The outcome of which would impact our understanding of other nations that have purchased, or developed in parallel, these rockets based upon the Taepodong design.