North Korea’s successful rocket launch on December 12, 2012 predictably spurred worldwide condemnation and media attention. Many of the reports immediately following the launch were remarkably similar and contained few attempts at alternative interpretations of the launch itself and of its implications. In the following text a couple of rather under-reported observations on the North Korean satellite launch will be presented.
North Korea, surprisingly, became the first of the two Koreas to successfully place a satellite into orbit by utilizing solely indigenous technology. South Korea made unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010 and twice postponed a planned launch in 2012. This undoubtedly comes as a slap in the face for researchers in South Korea’s space program, some of which even claimed that North Korean space technology was “at least 20 years behind the South’s”.
2012 marks the only time North Korea has conducted two launches in the same year, but more importantly the two launches under Kim Jong-un’s rule have shown a significant difference from the launches under the leadership of Kim Jong-il in that the rockets were launched towards the south and not towards the east. Why is this significant? Because it could indicate that Pyongyang is showing an unprecedented wariness of Tokyo’s concerns and warnings of shooting down the rocket were it to pose a threat to Japan. In this context it’s important to note that southward bound launches present a far bigger challenge than eastward bound launches, both financially (more fuel) and technologically (stronger engine). Due to the centrifugal power generated by the Earth’s rotation (west to east) an eastward bound launch would be given a gravitational boost and thus require far less propellants than launches in other directions (the Earth rotates at a speed of almost 1700 kilometers per hour along the equator). Launching towards the south also presents Pyongyang with another disadvantage: the satellite would orbit around the Earth from south to north instead of following the Earth’s rotation from west to east. This means that the satellite will cross North Korea only a limited number of times a year, making North Korea’s satellite practically useless for weather observation purposes.
By launching the rockets towards the south, North Korea has thus demonstrated a willingness to take a more technologically challenging, expensive and ineffective approach arguably in order to ease Japanese concerns. This is a new development since Kim Jong-un came to power. It could of course also be interpreted as North Korea’s lack of confidence in its own technology and resultant concerns that an eastward bound launch could fall down over Japan and create an unfavorable international environment.
North Korea did indeed place a satellite into orbit. What implications will this have on the language of future references to North Korean rockets? Japan, for example, has up until now consistently referred to North Korea’s launches as “the missile which North Korea calls a ‘satellite’” [北朝鮮による「人工衛星」と称するミサイル ], implying that North Korea has had no intentions to place a satellite into orbit, but simply has used the satellite claim as a pretext to test missile technology. This may still be true, but North Korea nonetheless succeeded in placing a satellite into orbit and future references to North Korean launches will possibly be changed. If the international community changes its vocabulary from “missile” to “satellite”, it will perhaps become increasingly difficult to deny North Korea the right to test its rocket technology for use in a peaceful space program, especially as long as South Korea pursues exactly the same goal.
Regarding North Korea’s motives for the launch, there has been a tendency among analysts to over-analyze the reasons for North Korea’s launch. The multiple power transitions in the region might of course have played a role, but what “message” could North Korea possibly have hoped to convey to the various regional actors who all have differing interests and probably interpret the launch in widely different ways? “Don’t forget about us”, could that be it? North Korea hardly needs satellites to prevent its fading into oblivion. If North Korea’s launch was a message, it seems unlikely that it was addressed to other countries than the US. The launch demonstrated once and for all that North Korea has the potential (however limited) to reach US mainland. For Japan and South Korea the launch does not pose a new threat as both these countries allegedly have been within the North Korean missile range since 1993. If this was a message, it was aimed at the US. This also correlates to North Korea’s warning in October that North Korean missiles could reach “not only South Korea and Japan, but also the US”.
Rather than interpreting the launch as a cry for attention directed at the international community, it seems reasonable that domestic factors were most instrumental this time around. Obviously the launch coincided almost on the day with the one year commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 17 2011, but 2012 was also the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and North Korea had announced many years in advance that 2012 would mark the watershed moment when North Korea transforms itself into a “strong and prosperous nation”. The international situation notwithstanding, North Korea would probably have conducted some kind of symbolic act in 2012 to showcase its technological prowess in the new “strong and prosperous” era regardless of outside factors. Its spectacular launch failure in April created, if nothing else, a sense of urgency for achieving something grandiose before the end of the watershed year of 2012.
Fellow, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation,
The Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)
See for example the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s homepages, http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/n_korea/missile_12_2/index.html
by Stig Toft Madsen, NIAS
On April 19th India test-fired a long-range ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear bomb. With a range stated to be more than 3.100 miles, the missile would be able to reach not only large Chinese cities beyond the Tibetan plateau. It could reach even further. The distance from say Srinagar in Kashmir to Vienna in Austria is 3.114 miles or 5.011 kilometer. In other words: Vienna is within its reach.
The missile has been developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and other defense organizations and laboratories often located in science- and IT-cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. As the name Agni V indicates the missile is the latest in a series of missiles with progressively longer range. Already in 1971, Indira Gandhi reportedly directed the defense ministry and the DRDO to start developing long-range ballistic missiles (Kampani 2003). Agni V is the fruit of that labor, but some Indian strategic thinkers are not content with this. They have urged India to develop a missile (called Surya, the Sun) that may reach even further. Some argue that India should develop thermonuclear bombs in the megaton class. India has so far not capitalized much on its powerful weapons through sales to other countries. Some argue that India should do so.
Why, one may wonder, does India persist in developing and buying these and other weapons? Looking at such questions somewhat anthropologically, I will have a closer look at a few commonly used phrases, which say something about how Indians think about themselves and their role in the world today. The test-firing of a missile, the testing of nuclear or thermonuclear bombs in 1998, and the launching of a satellite into space are occasions, which lead Indians and others to make statements to the effect that India is now a superpower and that others should recognize it as a superpower. On such occasions three phrases are commonly used:
- India is now taking its rightful place in the Comity of Nations
- India is now a member of an Exclusive Club
- India is now sitting at the High Table
The High Table is an institution found in old British universities or colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge. Senior faculty members or fellows and their guest would sit at the raised table above and separately from the students. By contrast, in other universities (such as Princeton in the US) dining was used as an opportunity for students to interact with the faculty members (www.princeton.edu/~gradcol/perm/hightable.htm).
In India, the partaking of meals has been used since time immemorial to unite and differentiate people, often along caste lines. Historically, commensal rows or “feeding lines” consisting of people of the same caste or sub-caste have repeatedly defined or objectified group identity (Madsen and Gardella 2012). When Indians say that their weaponry entitles them to sit at the High Table, they thereby evoke notions of superiors sharing a meal. The image does not imply that only Indians may eat under conditions of grandeur. But it indicates that Indians may eat only with their equals and not with others.
Being the member of an “exclusive club” implies an even greater degree of inequality. While students at Oxbridge may not sit at the High Table, they can at least see the table from where they sit. An exclusive club is closed in a more radical manner. Its charmed circle entirely sealed, an outsider cannot even enter the club. Such exclusive clubs have an aura of secrecy. Their members probably wine and dine, but others cannot really tell what they do. The members set their own rules which may not be in conformity with the rules that others follow. Evoking the image of an exclusive club signals power, non-transparency, and even the ability to act with impunity.
In contrast, to achieve one’s rightful place in the comity of nations does not imply exclusivism or secrecy. All countries, big and small, are entitled to a place as equals in the United Nations where, in principle, discussions are held openly and where every nation has a voice. In that sense, India already enjoys its rightful place in the comity of nations. It does not need to lay claim to it by demonstrating its power back-up in terms of weapons of mass destruction. But then the “rightful place” may be understood to mean something more than a place like any other nation. India’s rightful place – taking into consideration it size, it military muscle, its growing economy – then may turn out on closer inspection to be an elevated position. In short, what India claimed it achieved by test-firing the Agni V and similar acts was a rightful place at the High Table in an Exclusive Club for the select among the nations of the world. Not a very democratic vision but more inclusive than the idea of “the peaceful rise of China”, which portrays China’s rise as a form of “reemergence” whereby China is about to regain the all-encompassing hegemonic status that it presumably once possessed.
Gaurav Kampani, “Stakeholders in the Indian Strategic Missile Program”, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2003.
Stig Toft Madsen and Geoffrey Gardella, “Udupi Hotels: Entrepreneurship, Reform and Revival”, in Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas (eds.) Curried Cultures, Globalization, Food, and South Asia, Berkeley, Los Angeles London: University of California Press, 2012.
With thanks to Sasikumar Shanmugasundaram for comments.
During the past week, South Korea held parliamentary elections whereas North Korea made a failed missile test and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founder, eternal President Kim Il Sung (1912-1994).
In the April 11 elections, the ruling Saenuri party won 152 of 300 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. The main opposition party, the Democratic United Party, received 127 seats. Although it is difficult to predict the impact on the presidential elections to be held in December, the chances of Park Kun-hye, the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee (1963-1979), to become the ruling party’s candidate could have improved. Politics will increasingly focus on the elections, which means that it is unlikely that anything dramatic will happen in domestic politics or in inter-Korean relations throughout the year.
Since North Korea announced on March 16 that it will make a missile test between April 12-16 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, there has been much concern regarding the announcement world-wide. The test was made on April 13 but it was a big failure: the rocket crushed into the sea just one minute after it was launched. Considering that the launch not only concurred with the commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday but also was intended to strengthen the new leader Kim Jong-Un’s position, the crash was very embarrasing for the leadership. The North Korean authorities have admitted the failure and initiated investigations to find out the causes. It cannot be excluded that the failure will have an impact on power politics within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party (KWP).
At the military parade held in the capital Pyongyang on April 15, the leadership showed up in front of tens of thousands of citizens in order to show unity. The appointment of Kim Jong-Un as first secretary of KWP and chairman of the Central Military Commission on April 11 followed by the appointment as first chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission on April 13 clearly shows that the North Korean leadership wants to maintain status quo. This wish also became clear when Kim Jong-Un declared that the ”military-first” policy pursued by his father Kim Jong Il (1942-2011) will be enhanced.
Since the 1950s, North Korea has always emphasized the juche idea of self-reliance in politics, economics and defense, but the missile test is an indication that this policy has contributed to make the country backwards in terms of military technology. The admission of the failure shows that there is awareness of the backwardness within the party, but whether the failure will cause fissures or not is an open question. Considering that there since the struggle for power within the party ended in the late 1950s have been no known signs of fissures within the party, it is hard to expect that such a situation will develop now.
On the other hand, one difference now is that the legitimacy of power for a third generation Kim is weaker than for his predecessors. In fact, Kim Jong-Un’s only source of legitimacy is being son of Kim Jong Il, but how long will that impact last? What will happen if he cannot bring the country out of its economic difficulties that to a large extent are caused by the huge military expenditures? We do not know yet by sure how firm grip he has on power, but even if Korean politics is characterized by one-man rule the leader must have trusted advisers around him. Could the failed test cause distrust among his closest people?
North Korea is in contrast to what was the case in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe extremely isolated from the outside world which makes it virtually impossible to change the system from outside. Domestic pressure for a change is at the present out of the question but should fissures arise within the leadership, along with disunity within the powerful military, an unpredictable situation could develop in the country.
Associate Professor Korean Studies, Stockholm University