N. Korea’s missile launch may reveal internal power plays

The Unha-3 rocket launched from Sohae in North Korea on the morning of Dec. 12 passed through Japanese airspace over the island of Okinawa 12 minutes later, and crashed into the Pacific Ocean roughly 300 kilometers east of the Philippines. The launch could be considered a mild surprise, because South Korean intelligence sources had suggested that it had been canceled. More surprising was the success of the launch, which makes North Korea the tenth member of the world’s “Space Club” (the ninth member was Iran, which successfully launched its Safir rocket in 2008). The Unha-3, a three-stage rocket weighing 92 tons, follows the Unha-2, which failed spectacularly in 2009, so the evident progress that North Korea has made in its missile technology in such a short period has shocked governments around the world.

The U.N. Security Council responded by debating a resolution on strengthening sanctions against North Korea. Only China – no surprise there – opposed new sanctions, and stressed that “actions that heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula should not be taken.” China has agreed to approve Security Council resolutions against Iran on several occasions, but it has backed sanctions against North Korea on only two occasions, both coming after the North conducted nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009.

China’s leaders oppose stiffer sanctions against North Korea for a simple reason: they fear the frailty of Kim Jong un’s regime more than they fear the international security consequences of the missile launch. Above all, China wants to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime, which it fears may result from stricter sanctions.

If the Kim regime timed the missile launch to have a direct impact on elections in nearby Japan and South Korea, it may have succeeded merely in boosting support for defense-oriented conservative parties. Indeed, although it is difficult to say how large an impact the launch had on the final result in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (of which I am a member, serving as deputy chair of the election campaign) won a landslide victory.

Although Park Geun-hye’s victory in South Korea, where she became the country’s first-ever female president, followed a campaign mainly focused on domestic economic issues, North Korea’s missile-guided brinkmanship probably persuaded many undecided voters to support the security-minded Park’s camp.

So, given the seemingly negative impact of the launch on neighboring South Korea and Japan, why didn’t the North hold its fire? Some suggest that North Korean leaders were determined to stage the launch before the first anniversary of Kim Jong un’s assumption of power on Dec. 17. Others suggest that the North Koreans prefer conservatives in power in Seoul and Tokyo, because a more robust vision of national defense in Japan and South Korea will antagonize China, which, isolated in East Asia, will then be more likely to maintain its support for the Kim regime. After all, China’s small list of friends in Asia became even smaller in the past year, given the democratic transition in Myanmar.

So, in Kim’s perverse logic, a new push for U.N. sanctions, and new security-conscious governments in Japan and South Korea, will actually strengthen the North’s hold on Chinese foreign policy. Thus, the missile launch may be viewed as an indication of how threatened the Kim dynasty feels today: the regime appears to believe it must blackmail its closest ally in order to maintain its support.

The primary cause of the North Korean regime’s fears is growing political uncertainty, which is the direct result of the failing health of Kim Kyong hui, Kim Jong un’s aunt and the power behind the throne. Indeed, keen observers of North Korean politics suggest that Kim Jong un ordered the missile launch as a way of strengthening his grip on power while he still has the backing of the experienced and ruthless Kim Kyong hui. Without it, the Kim dynasty’s hold on power would almost certainly be weakened, given Kim Jong un’s youth and inexperience, and this may plunge the country into chaos.

One seemingly obscure political move last month – the appointment of Jang Sung taek (Kim Kyong hui’s husband) as the chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission – suggests Kim Kyong hui’s ill health is already having an impact on the regime. While no modern state would do such a thing, the Sports Guidance Commission happens to include the regime’s most powerful members. Jang’s move to the post strongly suggests the internal struggle for power is already heating up.

North Korea’s missile launch, coming amid the internal uncertainty arising from Kim Kyong hui’s failing health, creates an extremely dangerous situation for the international community. Only by strengthening U.N. sanctions to such an extent that North Korea is forced to abandon its missiles and nuclear weapons – and China to reconsider its knee-jerk support for Pyongyang – can the regime be dissuaded from further, and more ominous, maneuvering.

But, given China’s continuing opposition to further sanctions, there is scant hope of this happening. Until China puts its responsibilities as a modern global power ahead of its narrow national interests, the danger from North Korea will grow as the Kim regime grows ever more unstable.

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister and national security adviser, is a former chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, and currently an opposition leader in the Diet. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 29, 2012, on page 7.




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