Many students of international politics have gotten so used to North Korean missile testings they merely reacted to this week’s missile launch with what amounts to an academic shrug-off: They took note, but only a few tried to make sense of the development. After all, there already is a default narrative for every North Korean rocket launch: It’s a way for the regime to seek attention and gain leverage to extort aid.
But I think this week’s missile testing deviates a bit from this default narrative. This time around, the regime in Pyongyang has a different motivation, and the rocket launch’s implications could prove to be much more significant.
Basic political theories tell us that regimes need legitimacy to remain stable, and that unlike democratic regimes, which gain mandates through electoral victory, dictatorial regimes like China and North Korea have uncertain sources of legitimacy. The regime in Beijing, for instance, draws its legitimacy from either its performance on the economic front or its ability to secure national interests– hence, it tends to beat nationalist drums at the expense of countries like Japan and the Philippines whenever it sees its legitimacy challenged. In North Korea’s case, Kim Il-sung drew his legitimacy from his semi-fictional wartime exploits; while his son, Kim Jong-il, made the defense of his father’s legacy, along with the defense of the country’s sovereignty amidst threats from “evil countries” like South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the bedrock of his mandate.
In an international conference of Korean studies specialists I attended in Manila earlier this year, one European academic correctly pointed out that the new regime of Kim Jong-un would sooner or later have to identify its preferred source of legitimacy. He suggests that the regime could choose from either a performance-based mandate or a legacy-based mandate. The former is similar to the Chinese model, and is very risky, since the current regime’s ability to deliver the North Korean people’s economic needs is questionable. The latter, on the other hand, requires the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty and an emphasis on continuity. It looks like the boyish dictator Kim Jong-un has opted for this safer track.
The perpetuation of the Kim dynasty requires pandering to pomp and symbolisms. North Korea is currently celebrating the centenary birth year of its founder, Kim Il-sung. Decades ago, the regime has promised 2012 to be Year of Prosperity– the year when the country would finally achieve prosperity and national strength. A successful launch of a space satellite is the best way to celebrate this milestone. Pyongyang had hoped that the spectacle would beat patriotic drums, remind the impoverished North Koreans of the greatness of the Kim dynasty, and hopefully make them forget the looming winter famine. This week’s missile launch, therefore, is essentially a badly-needed fireworks display.
In short, while seeking international relevance in order to gain aid had been the late Kim Jong-il’s motivation when he launched his rockets during his time, Kim Jong-un’s motivation this time around is to strengthen his domestic legitimacy in order to consolidate power.
To be sure, the clique behind Kim Jong-un, led presumably by his reportedly powerful uncle Chang Song-taek, had to weigh the value of this grand fireworks display against its geopolitical implications. And I suspect it wasn’t an easy choice.
Firstly, South Korea and Japan are in the midst of their respective election campaigns. While South Korean front-runner Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly Grand National Party) has distanced herself from President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative track, she may now be inclined to move to the right, quashing any hopes for reviving the now-discredited Sunshine Policy. In Japan, on the other hand, the rocket launch further emboldens right-wing politicians like Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto of the right-wing Japan Restoration Party (JRP), and the presumptive Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Now, there’s nothing new with the Saenuri in Seoul and the LDP in Tokyo aggressively seeking to isolate the North Korean regime in various international fora. But what’s new this time around is that the typically sober Obama administration could be compelled to turn hawkish towards Pyongyang. This is because, as a couple of Japan specialists have correctly pointed out, the successful missile testing has put American military interests, if not the United States itself, within the range of North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM). No longer would Washington use North Korea as a bargaining chip over Japan; North Korea has become a mutual core national security interest for both countries. Further, this has given the United States, and its allies Japan and the Philippines, greater incentive to push through with the reportedly planned East Asian missile defense system, which China has unsurprisingly questioned.
Finally, last week’s missile testing was an in-your-face defiance of Beijing, which had earlier told its junior neighbor, in an unusual but unmistakably firm tone, not to go ahead with the planned missile launch. The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, would likely be pressured by the Beijing elite to whip Pyongyang a bit in order to rein it back in. Afterall, China could ill-afford a disobedient puppet, especially now that Myanmar has just escaped Beijing’s orbit.