Kim Jong-Il launches his rockets.

And the biggest gainer is Taro Aso

For the nth time, global attention is on North Korea as it defiantly carried out just a while ago a rocket launch seen by many in the region as provocative.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the “liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. (0230GMT) Sunday from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad innortheastern North Korea.”

Not surprisingly, the launch was followed by a chorus of condemnations from some world leaders. President Barack Obama called it “provocative” while President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea called it “reckless.” Japan, meanwhile, has requested an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council which will begin hours from now.

It is still unclear how the Security Council would respond to this latest North Korean theatrics. Kim Jong-il’s reclusive government has been insisting that under international law, his country, like everyone else, has the right to peacefully pursue a space program. Indeed, Pyongyang did follow the regulations of the International Maritime and International Civic Aviation organizations by notifying the world of the rocket launch, which it says would bring a satellite into orbit.

But frankly, only an idiot would believe that the launch was indeed intended solely for a satellite deployment. In the first place, why would North Korea need a bloody satellite for when it can’t even feed its people?

The fact is that North Korea has the capability to enrich uranium and plutonium and thus make a nuclear bomb, but it doesn’t have a reliable system to deliver the bomb to its targets. At least not yet. And the launch would help North Korea a lot in developing such a system.

Above: Potential American targets of North Korea’s nuclear threat, should it successfully acquire the right delivery system. 

Satelitte or not, today’s rocket launch would surely improve to some extent the North Koreans’ knowledge of long-range missile technology. It was a clear violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which “Demands that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.”

It remains to be seen how the Security Council would respond to the launch in its emergency meeting. Some of my friends have expressed skepticism, especially since, apparently, the leaders of China were cool to Prime Minister Taro Aso’s efforts to make them condemn the launch during last week’s G20 Summit in London. And Russia, another actor in the six-party talks, I believe, has not spoken on the matter as of this moment.

Taken from the North Korean perspective, I see this launch as the culmination of Pyongyang’s saber-rattling that began earlier this year and which, as always, is geared towards grabbing the attention of the new American president. The goal is to get the Obama administration, like the Bush regime before it, to make another series of concessions. This has been Kim Jong-il’s tried and tested standard tactic.

Whether or not this tactic would be successful again this time is, at this point, open to speculation. The fact that heavy concessions given by President Bush during the last couple of years obviously did not make Kim Jong-il behave and the alleged recent kidnapping of two American journalists by North Korea agents (which for some reasons is not being reported by the mainstream media both in the West and in Asia) makes the success of this renewed saber-rattling tactic less likely. At any rate, career diplomat and former US ambassador to Manila Stephen Bosworth has been appointed by President Obama to assess the situation and recommend proper American response.

Meanwhile, the convenor of the six-party talks, China, will now find it extremely difficult to revive the negotiations, which I believe is already dead in the water. In fact, Beijing is probably torn now between supporting North Korea, its traditional client state, and appeasing the West, with which it needs partnership.

As for Japan, over whose territory Kim Jong-il’s rocket flew, I believe its government stands to gain politically from this situation. The benefits are two-pronged: first, partisan gains for Prime Minister Aso and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and, second, increased leverage in the multilateral effort to resolve the crisis (especially in the context of pushing for the resolution of the abductions issue).

As I have asserted in a previous blog entry, the situation was in fact an opportunity for the beleaguered Aso government, whose mandate is questionable in the first place and whose popularity has consistently gone down due to its series of gaffes, to consolidate its conservative support base and utilize North Korea as an electoral issue for the Japanese voters as they go to polls come September (or maybe earlier). And now is the perfect time to do this, as the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is suffering from PR damages following a corruption scandal involving its leader, Ichiro Ozawa.

Indeed, the Aso regime has been very swift and decisive in responding to this launch. Japan’s Aegis missile-defense system, including state-of-the-art destroyers, was deployed promptly and the government has warned that it would to shoot down any debris that may fall on Japanese territory. The public was treated to a display of Japan’s military capabilities in what might be the biggest mobilization of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in its history. Some say the preparation was sort of an over-kill. An American analyst-blogger called it Japan’s “security kabuki.”

Owing to the fact that the JSDF somehow lacked actual operations training, there were glitches in the preparations. These were manifested in two false alarms that resulted in confusion in some localities, especially in places where the anti-missile system was deployed. Although the government quickly apologized, the Opposition did not miss having a field day criticizing the mistakes, saying it shows just how unprepared Japan really is despite its “high technology.”

Still, if not for the launch, the JSDF would not have had the chance to flex its muscle. I’m sure the glitches were part of this learning experience that would at the end of the day improve Japan’s security posture.

And the fact remains that following the rocket launch threat and the government’s preparations boosted the Aso regime’s approval ratings. In fact, a poll by a major Japanese vernacular newspaper showed that even those in the Left tended to support the Aso government’s response.

Moreover, North Korea’s rocket launch fuels the arguments against further concessions by the conservative governments of South Korea and Japan, which have been moving closer together. This is good news for the families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea agents, as this gives more leverage for the Aso government to make the abduction question a multilateral issue.

UPDATE, APRIL 6, 2009:

1. The Security Council, as expected, failed to respond in its emergency session. Japan, South Korea and the United States pushed for a tough resolution. China, Libya, Vietnam and Russia called for “restraint” and is likely to water down any resolution. The Council’s president, Mexico, said the session will continue tomorrow.

2. I take back my assertion that Japan stands to gain in the multilateral effort to resolve the crisis, owing to the fact that China and Russia came to North Korea’s rescue in today’s UNSC meeting. But I maintain that the Japanesegovernment stands to gain some political capital.

3. The Western governments claimthe launch was unsuccessful. But Pyongyang says it was not. If indeed the rocket crashed, as the US claims, then the denials of Pyongyang only serves to cement the belief of many that the launch was intended to show North Korea that Kim Jong-il is still in charge and that the regime is still alive and kicking amidst rumors that the “Dear Leader” is sick and dying. At any rate, failure or not, the fact that the rocket reached the Pacific shows that North Korea’s missile system improved since 2006.


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