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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: Bad News Edition

by | December 3rd, 2012 | 07:00 am
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Most readers of this blog have no doubt seen the news that the North Koreans have announced their intention to re-test. We call it a re-test because the justification and flight path of the polar-orbiting “satellite” are the same as the April test which we covered ad nauseum (missile posts can be found here). According to the KCNA, “scientists and technicians of the DPRK analyzed the mistakes that were made during the previous April launch and deepened the work of improving the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket, thereby rounding off the preparations for launch.”

Both South Korean political candidates and the US issued denunciations of the test. China expressed its concern about the launch in its “even-handed” way (hoping that “the relevant parties can act in a way that is more conducive to the stability of the Korean peninsula”) but with a small kicker. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang also pointed out that North Korea’s right to the peaceful use of outer space is “limited by the relevant Security Council resolutions.” Chinese pique may be related to the fact that the announcement came on the heels of the visit of a high-level delegation to Pyongyang carrying a letter from Xi Jinping.

Yet it is hard to avoid a sense that ennui is trumping outrage. The ennui stems from the fact that there is nothing on the table and expectations for a return to meaningful talks are incredibly low. The last test, by contrast, undercut a potentially promising—if controversial—food for freeze deal (see our analysis here and here).

Tad Farrell at NK News has a neat catalogue of possible motivations, including one-upsmanship vis-à-vis the South Korean satellite launch and missile range extension (Scott Snyder’s take at the CFR) ; mucking with the South Korean elections (although perversely strengthening the right); signaling indifference to foreign assistance, and thus toughness; and domestic political imperatives. The New York Times coverage includes comments by Yonsei’s John Delury on the internal political motivation for the re-test. Markus Schiller at RAND makes the more general case that the entire missile program is of greater political than military significance, designed to influence whatever bargaining may subsequently occur.

On the domestic political front, the ongoing reshuffle at the top of the military hierarchy continued this week as Kim Jong-un replaced defense minister Kim Jong Gak with General Kim Kyok-sik. The Defense Minister position is actually less significant than the position as Chief of the General Staff, but two things are nonetheless significant about this change as our colleague Luke Herman points out at NK News. First, Kim Jong Gak had risen rapidly through the ranks and appeared to be a significant player suggesting that succession issues continue to roil. Like the also-deposed Ri Yong Ho,  he was a Vice Marshal, member of the Politburo, National Defense Commission and Central Military Commission–one of only eight officials to hold such “interlocking directorates.” In our informal rankings, based on frequency of accompanying Kim Jong Un, he was the 6th most proximate figure to the leader and one of the “Gang of Eight” that accompanied Kim Jong Il’s casket during his funeral procession (see the NK News Leadership Tracker to follow the movements of the North Korean leadership). All four of the top brass who walked with Kim Jong Il’s bier are now gone, while all four civilians are still with us.

The second thing to note about the reshuffle is that Kim Kyok-sik is purportedly the general who commanded the units involved in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong episodes in 2010. What kind of signal is that designed to send?

The problem with the “internal politics” argument is that domestic politics has foreign policy implications, as the missile test itself shows. Is the presumption that because it’s domestic it doesn’t matter and we should ignore it? In addition to the missile problem, the other bad news of the week concerns the country’s nuclear capabilities and ongoing proliferation activities. Last week, a spokesperson for the IAEA noted that the construction of North Korea’s light water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon continues apace. In that dry way that press secretaries can do, the IAEA spokesman noted that the organization is not able to “determine the reactor’s design features or the likely date for its commissioning.” Maybe externally-monitored LWR’s are more diversion-proof, but this operation is an entirely indigenous affair and the North Korean’s can do whatever they want with the spent fuel.

Nor have North Korea’s proliferation activities ceased.  The Asahi Shimbun reported the seizure of metal pipes and high-specification aluminum alloy at U.S. in August. The suspected pathway: North Korea through China to Myanmar. Senator Lugar is making the issue an early test of the new US-Burma relationship. The test and ongoing proliferation activities will also clearly be a test of the US-China relationship under a second Obama administration.

Our interpretation of all of this is simple. “Note to the incoming administrations in the US, Japan, South Korea and China from the Kim Jong Un regime: Congratulations. We’re here!”