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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: Missile Launch Edition (2:30 AM East Coast Time)

by | December 12th, 2012 | 02:36 am
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As of press time here on the West Coast, we only had a terse NORAD statement and press reports citing Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to suggest that yesterday’s launch was a success. Previous launches in 1998, 2009 and in April this year were failures. The first two of these failures were covered up, but the third generated a public embarrassment not only to the regime but to the military. If the satellite is in orbit, it is a major domestic political win for Kim Jong Un and those in the regime who pushed to reverse the failure of the April test. If you have any doubts about the political value of the launch, read the statements and watch and listen to the euphoric North Korean TV announcement posted at NKNews.

But as always with North Korea, is the victory substantive, short-lived, or Pyrrhic? The argument for “Pyrrhic” begins with the extraordinary opportunity cost of diverting scarce resources to the missile effort; the South Korean government recently estimated that total expenditure on the missile program since 1998 was between $2.8 and $3.2 billion, enough to buy 9.3-10.6 million tons of corn (at a price $300 per ton). Corn is not exactly a favored staple and thus a less than perfect metric. But if the South Korean estimates are to be believed it would be enough to feed the entire country for three years or so.

Beyond the non-trivial internal political value of the launch, its hard to see what the test gets Pyongyang vis-à-vis the Five Parties except predictable statements of alarm and outrage. Whether that outrage translates into any new constraints on the regime is another issue; it may end up paying surprisingly little.

South Korea has little room left for further sanctions unless it decides to shut the door on Kaesong. Closing Kaesong would be a pricey proposition. As we noted in a recent post, the government has already been forced to extend insurance to those outside Kaesong affected by the post-Cheonan sanctions.  The bill would be steeper at Kaesong, not to mention the possibility of South Korean workers being held hostage. Japan is in similar straits. With virtually no trade left, there is little room to act beyond further development of missile defense capabilities, something likely to alarm Beijing as much as North Korea.

The key players at the UNSC meeting today will therefore once again be the US and China. China’s response to the initial missile launch announcement conveyed Beijing’s maddening even-handedness—calling on all parties to exercise restraint–but with one small kicker. While the Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated North Korea’s right to the peaceful use of outer space, “the right is subject to the restrictions of relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

In April, we detailed both past UN responses to tests and the generally bellicose North Korean assertion of its rights in the face of the UNSC resolutions and presidential statements. China signed on to the 2009 sanctions effort, but was more reticent following the April 2012 test. It remains to be seen what they will offer today, but we expect it will be marginal tweaks on the entities and individuals subject to sanction. Then the question becomes whether Beijing will enforce what it signs, and our cynicism on that question is pretty deep. As the more elaborated Xinhua coverage suggests, the reference to North Korea’s obligations not to test under 1874 will likely recede and concerns about escalation will drive Beijing to revert to its “even-handed” approach. China may be sending private messages to cease and desist, but they have certainly not proven strong enough to have any effect.

The US has options outside of the UN if the administration feels that it is not getting satisfaction. In particular, it could move toward more aggressive Proliferation Security Initiative-type action vis-à-vis more North Korean shipping and air transport. One reason for doing so: the increasing concern about the Iran-North Korea connection. The Chosun Ilbo coverage of Iranians in North Korea for the launch was given a useful elaboration by our friend Jeff Lewis at Arms Control Wonk.  Iran has successfully put a satellite into orbit and this is North Korea’s first. But given the costs of these tests the sharing of technical information is no doubt of value to both sides, and arguably for other platforms as well. Proliferation is not simply about movement of materiel, but of technological capabilities; there is no plausible way for the North Koreans to have succeeded at this launch in the absence of outside assistance.