Sunday, April 05, 2009

Some Thoughts around the North Korean Missile/Projectile/Rocket Launch

I am watching Sunday Project, a one-hour, forty-five minute news show; this week it’s the Taepodon 2 launch, from start to finish. Among other things, they’re showing an estimate based on known facts that the rocket will reach Japanese territory within two minutes of launch and leaves it within four of it. Moments later (or so I remember) the regular news room breaks in with the announcement that the Taepodon 2 has launched successfully at 11:30. (Good thing I changed my mind about the likely launching schedule.) I look at the clock; it’s 11:35, going on 11:36. And it’s a good clock. So, by the time the information reached the Japanese public, the projectile was already on its way over presumably safer international waters. That wasn’t a warning call; it was for all practical purposes an all-clear.

Experts gave a variety of explanations for North Korea’s insistence on actions: a) a deterrent—against the U.S., on both offense and defense; b) negotiation tactics—like the 2006 “nuclear” test that led to the bilateral negotiations (which the Bush administration had been resisting fiercely; c) (on a related point) getting the United States to pay attention—the Obama administration has been putting “Asia” on the backburners; d) cash cow—as in $1.5 billion in annual missile sales including what looks like a joint-venture relationship with Iran; and e) domestic politics—impressing the masses and placating the military. Though there’s no way of knowing what goes on in the individual and collective minds of the North Korean leadership from Kim Jong Il down, each explanation seemed to me to have a measure of truth to it. All in all, they reinforce my conviction that there is little short of regime change that would induce them to give this up, or the nuclear weapons program.

This does not directly impact Japan in terms of national security; our main concerns are the smaller, mobile, rapid-fire Rodongs—all 200 of them with nowhere to aim at except Japan. However, this does change the game for the United States, as I’ve mentioned before, and that impacts Japan. There has been an underlying tension between the two allies regarding North Korea’s nuclear program; to grossly simplify the situation, Japan fears an attack while the United States fears proliferation. From Japan’s point of view, taking North Korea off the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors did nothing, but it at least bought time for the United States.

Incidentally, we don’t hear about their drugs and counterfeiting operations anymore. What gives?

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