Tuesday, April 17, 2012
North Korean 'Rocket Madness'
North Korea's launching of Unha-3 rocket carrying the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 was unsuccessful as the rocket exploded in less than 100 seconds. Therefore, Japan and South Korea were denied the 'pleasure' of shooting it down. North Korea decided to carry out the launch despite the protests of the West, South Korea and Japan. The North Koreans declared that Kwangmyongsong-3 was a weather satellite but the West countered stating that the launch was a cover-up for an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile test.
The North Koreans had planned to launch the satellite between April 12-16, 2012, to commemorate their founder Kim Il-sung's birth centenary. Born on April 15, 1912, Kim Il-sung was a anti-Japanese guerrilla leader during the 1930s. Later he became the leader of the Soviet zone of Korea after the end of the Second World War in 1945. He was the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. When he died in December 2011, he was in turn succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un.
Being an inherently secretive regime, the DPRK has disclosed little details of the private lives of its leaders. The young Kim Jong-un is supposed to be 28 years old and therefore is the youngest head of state serving today. He is ruling over a country of 25 million people, 1.1 million of them, or above 4%, being soldiers. This makes the Korean People's Army the 4th largest army in the world. However, the country is impoverished and starving.
Given this, it is in a way a puzzle as to why the regime continues to pursue increasing militarization with the nuclear program and the rocket program being inherent parts of it. They hardly pay attention to alleviate poverty and the food crisis. Kim Jong-un seems to follow the same line despite some early signs to the contrary.
Usually, North Korea does not own up when they make a mistake. However, they promptly did so when the Unha-3 rocket exploded. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un surprised many when he gave a public speech on April 15, at a military parade to commemorate his grandfather's birth anniversary. However, he payed tribute to his grandfather and father and also to the army. In short, he implied that no fundamental change in the day to day activities of the DPRK leadership should be expected in for the time being.
The main reason for the reluctance towards reforms seems to be the fear that once reforms are initiated, it will go out of the control of the leadership. It will invariably bring the doom of the regime. Unlike China which instituted economic reform while keeping the political control firmly under the Communist Party, the North Koreans face a different threat. They have a traditional rival in the form of South Korea. Any liberalization may end up with the people opting for a better life. What happened to East Germany might be deterring the North Koreans. Therefore, attempts at reform have always been lukewarm and hence destined to fail.
North Korea does need aid. But any aid is bound to come from the West with strings attached. The West would want them to open up. In the long run it will undermine the regime. But what if the DPRK also had a bargain to offer, such as abandoning the nuclear program or the rocket program? Then the West would have less leverage. This has happened earlier, and may happen in the future. The Korean issue is far from over.
Image: North Korean Unha-3 Rocket at Launch Pad, Voice of America, from Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Koring, "Failed Rocket Provides Pyongyang's Moment of Truth", The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 13, 2012.
Damian Grammaticas, "Kim Joun-un's First Public Speech" BBC, April 16, 2012.
"Kim Jong-un Speeks at Military Parade", Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), April 15, 2012.