With a fiery – and finally successful – launch of a satellite into orbit, North Korea’s new leader has boldly defied the international community even as he erased the shame of previous failures and solidified his hold on the impoverished neo-Stalinist state.
In the face of stark warnings and a UN ban outlawing both nuclear and long-distance missile testing, Pyongyang has done both –underscoring the failure of the international community to make good on vague threats against rogue states or enforce United Nations resolutions.
Whether North Korea’s defiance emboldens others to regard UN Security Council resolutions as hollow and easily ignored threats remains unclear, but the missile test underscored just how flawed the planet’s non-proliferation regime has become.
Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea have all developed nuclear weapons in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty over the last few decades. Iran is on the verge of having sufficient nuclear material to make warheads and already has the missiles capable of delivering them thousands of kilometres.
The multi-stage rocket, like the one North Korea fired Wednesday, is as capable of delivering a city-flattening nuclear warhead as lofting a satellite into orbit. North Korea may be no more unstable, no more bizarre and no more dangerous than it was last week but suddenly the reach of its unpredictable, isolated and paranoid leadership is far greater.
The nightmare scenarios no longer end with massive artillery barrages aimed at Seoul or conventional warheads on medium-range rockets reaching Japan, but ocean-spanning missiles possibly tipped with nuclear warheads.
Not surprisingly, a chorus of denunciation – echoing the chorus of pre-launch warnings – followed the North Korean success.
President Barack Obama issued a statement calling it a ‘highly provocative act that threatens regional security.”
But successive U.S. presidents have threatened – for decades – never to allow Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons. The threats proved empty and were silenced when North Korea tested a nuclear device in an underground test in 2006.
Predictably Japan and South Korea condemned the rocket launch.
But crucially, China, the new Pacific superpower and North Korea’s sole ally, made it clear it wasn’t about to turn against the communists in Pyongyang.
“We hope relevant parties stay calm in order to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
While the rocket may have been aimed for greatest domestic impact, the launch has significant international implications.
The twenty-something new leader, Kim Jong-un, whose public speeches and young wife have raised hopes that the reclusive regime may be entering an new era of reform and openness, has delivered a stunning and symbolic triumph in a year that has great importance in North Korea.
It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the dynasty’s first leader Kim Il-sung, who ruled from 1948 to 1994. So 2012 was intended to be a year marking North Korean successes. Instead, in April, another Unha-3 rocket blew up minutes after launch. That failure was regarded as a national humiliation although North Korea watchers were stunned that the new leader allowed it to be publicly announced.
Now Kim Jong-un has delivered. North Koreans were reportedly dancing in the streets. And the success came less than a year after the death of Kim Jong-il, firmly establishing the ‘greatness’ of the third generation of the communist dynasty.
Beyond North Korea’s borders, the launch poses new problems and more instability in the western Pacific. As America shifts its military focus in a still-vague pivot to the Pacific, there are rising tensions among Japan, China and a half-dozen smaller nations over conflicting maritime claims in the China Sea.
While a North Korean collapse likely remains the gravest of the likely threats scenarios on the peninsula, another rogue state with nuclear weapons and a missile capable of lofting them half-way around the world has become a dangerous reality.