On Wednesday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) successfully launched a long-range rocket, in defiance of U.N. resolutions against the DPRK using ballistic missiles. The launch of the missile is said to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong Il (December 17) and included a “scientific and technological satellite fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth.” Despite the North Koreans contending the missile was used for peaceful purposes, the launch was widely believed by military analysts to be a covert test of long-range missile technology. Others believe the launch sought to bolster Kim Jong Un’s leadership and heighten tensions in the region, as it took place immediately prior to Japan’s lower house election on December 16 and the South Korean presidential election on December 19.
How real is the missile threat from North Korea? As evidenced by this most recent launch, coming eight months after a failed launch in April, North Korea is moving up the military technological chain. Experts, however, do not believe North Korea has a nuclear warhead small enough to fly on a long-distance missile, and reports are that its scientists do not currently have full operational control over their satellite. Most neighboring nations have the ability to shoot down the missile anyway and Beijing has demonstrated its ability to target satellites. The rocket passed close to the territories of Japan and South Korea, but both refrained from any retaliation.
While the current missile technology in North Korea is still undeveloped, progress is being made and neighbors are feeling increasingly threatened. Over the past decade, the international community has repeatedly called for calm as North Korea tested nuclear weapons and carried out ballistic missile tests. In response to these tests, the U.N. has imposed sanctions, and the U.S. attempted to garnish support for tightened sanctions following the failed launch in April by targeting banks, businesses and government entities that are violating U.N. Resolutions. In this last round, China vetoed all but three of the 40 entities the U.S. had suggested should be added to the sanction list. Japan, however, is alarmed by the launch and is thought likely to demand an amendment to the country’s Peace Constitution, which would allow the rearming of the Japanese military.
The official response from China has been muted. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed regret at North Korea’s decision to launch, saying the U.N. Security Council’s response should be “prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation.” China’s moderate response may have drawn some criticism, but is understandable in light of its desire to maintain the status quo on the Korean peninsula. China dreads a massive influx of hungry refugees into its territories, and has effectively propped up a crumbling buffer state and its weapons program through economic assistance and food aid (South Korea’s Ministry of Unification estimates Pyongyang spent $1.3 billion on its rocket program this year, including the failed attempt in April, an amount equivalent to 4.6 million tons of corn.) China has also bought itself some measure of security as North Korea’s sole major ally, largest trading partner and aid provider, as long-range missiles developed by North Korea are unlikely to be aimed at Beijing.
Beijing is thought to have the most influence and leverage when it comes to reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but how much leverage does China really have? Should sanctions tighten and China discontinue its program of economic aid, a larger humanitarian crisis could ensue, bringing instability to North Korea, South Korea and China. If sanctions are loosened and greater economic aid brought to North Korea, the regime may continue to displace spending on its people and continue to develop a more threatening missile and nuclear arsenal.
Clearly a new approach is needed. In an editorial in The Global Times, it was suggested that Beijing can hold discussions with Pyongyang and other parties on providing North Korea with facilities that could protect it from military attacks and have the same effect as nuclear arms. Would this quell North Korea’s ambitions to go nuclear or would it be a welcome gift to complement its nuclear ambitions? Many are skeptical and call for Beijing to get tougher, not softer with the North Koreans. But these calls are misplaced – Beijing has little influence on the actions of the North Korean regime. North Korea has its finger on the self-destruct button and the new leadership in China has enough problems of its own, and no desire or energy to deal with the mess left behind should North Korea ultimately fail as a state. And so the status quo is maintained and Beijing reluctantly continues to pay its tribute to its neighbor.