North Korea needs a satellite

So soon after agreeing on a moratorium on all missile testings and other nuclear-related activities in exchange for American food aid, the North Koreans are again making what appears to be a complete u-turn: They will launch a satellite into orbit next month. While, as Pyongyang insists, a satellite launch is different from a ballistic missile testing, both use the same technology. The proposed launch, therefore, could in fact be a violation of the spirit of last month’s Leap Day Deal.

Not surprisingly, the Asian neighborhood is abuzz: South Korea is condemning its northern neighbor for this latest provocation, the Philippines is seeking US help in monitoring the North Korean rocket, while Japan is thinking of shooting that rocket down. The United States has said it might hold off the food aid. Even China, Kim Jong-un’s only ally, is reportedly peeved. What’s with the North Koreans?

The initial reaction of most analysts is to say that this is just another example of North Korean deal-breaking. Remember the cycle of North Korean negotiations we have discussed in the previous blog entry? The late Kim Jong-il was good at cutting a deal and then breaking it after getting what he had wanted. This time around, however, Kim Jong-un has not even laid his hands on a single American grain yet. Obviously, he needs the 240,000 tons of US food, which would prevent a looming famine, badly enough to agree on a deal with the Americans. Why then is he risking a cancellation of the food aid by insisting on going ahead with the satellite launch?

Well, first of all, I think Kim Jong-un is not really the one calling the shots in Pyongyang. In fact, I don’t think policy-making there is being conducted by a single authority. Like most other countries, North Korea, especially in this fragile post-transition period, is not a monolithic actor. There are different power centers with competing intentions. There are those who are keen on ending the country’s isolation, while there are those who don’t see the wisdom of dealing with foreign powers. What makes this worse is that Kim Jong-un and his regency are probably too inexperienced– and they just haven’t consolidated control yet– to coordinate these competing visions and harmonize them into one consistent policy.

Indeed, it could even be that the Foreign Ministry officials who had sought the Americans out last month are not even aware of the plans to launch a satellite, which were most likely pushed by military officials. Between these two competing elites, it is the army that has greater leverage over Kim Jong-un and his handlers, of course. And for them– and this is probably shared by Kim Jong-un and his regent Chang Song-taek too– launching the satellite is so vital to the stability of the regime it actually trumps the need for American food aid.

The symbolism of a satellite launch on the eve of the centenary birthday of North Korean founder and eternal president Kim Il-sung is very important for the regime in Pyongyang. The said regime had long promised 2012 to be the year for North Korea to finally achieve strength and prosperity. Therefore, it must have an extravagant display of prosperity by pulling off nation-wide celebrations, and of strength by pulling off a successful launching of a communications satellite. The regime is clearly aiming to raise the morale of the impoverished North Korean people with these symbolic rituals. Indeed, I suspect that this eccentric regime thinks that its legitimacy in the eyes of its people depends a lot on this satellite launch.

As for Kim Jong-un, his legitimacy as a leader in the eyes of the North Korean elite, and therefore his ability to consolidate power, would probably depend a lot on this satellite launch, too. As I have said in a previous post, keeping the North Korean elite in check requires doing something, well, spectacular.


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