The Duck Fails to Quack

13 Apr

North Korea’s launch of an Unha-3 missile failed.nkorearocket354.jpg

After weeks of boasting by the country, the missile launched at 7:39 a.m. on a sunny, wind-free morning from a base near the west coast city of Sinuiju.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports say the rocket quickly broke up and splashed into the Yellow Sea.

“The missile traveled one to two minutes and broke apart in the air. It broke into 20 separate pieces,” Shin Won-shik, a South Korean Defense Ministry official, said at a briefing Friday morning.

Shin said some of the debris fell 60 to 90 miles off the west coast of South Korea.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said the first stage of the missile fell into the sea about 100 miles west of Seoul. The remaining stages were believed to have failed and no debris fell on land, NORAD said, adding that the missile and resultant debris were never a threat.

The Obama administration called the failure a “provocative act“.

“Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

“While this action is not surprising given North Korea’s pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community.

“The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security (of) our allies in the region.”

South Korea used the same language to condemn the failed launch.

North Korea launched a de facto long-range missile, which the North calls an ‘application satellite,’ at 07:39 on April 13, 2012 at a launching site located in Cholsan-gun, North Pyongan province, and it has been confirmed that the launch has failed.

The launch by North Korea is a clear violation of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1874, which prohibits any launch using ballistic missile technology, and a provocative act that threatens the peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

The Government of the Republic of Korea strongly condemns that the new North Korean leadership pushed forward with the launch, disregarding the international community’s unified call for withdrawal of the launch. North Korea must be held duly accountable for its actions.

It is very regrettable that North Korea is spending enormous resources on developing nuclear and missile capabilities while ignoring the urgent welfare issue of the North Korean people such as chronic food shortages.

The Republic of Korea government is considering comprehensive measures to respond effectively against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, and will take countermeasures against the launch in close coordination with related countries and the international community.

After this apparent agreement between friendly governments, though, pundits are divided over the significance of the failure and the response. The range of responses spans from mocking relief to dogged anxiety.

Spencer Ackerman clls the missile a “dud”, and then ridicules those who still counsel vigilance.

If Pyongyang’s rockets can’t launch a satellite into orbit, there’s no way they could power a long-range missile into space to come crashing down onto Hawaii, or California, or points east. Years of predictions of imminent North Korean mega-missile – thank you, still-presidential-candidate Newt Gingrich – have been disproven yet again.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to U.S. politicians. “An avowed enemy of freedom, with a new and unpredictable leadership, possesses nuclear weapons and is testing their capability to strike long-range targets, including the American homeland,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Talk about missing the point. “The way they’re going,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterrey Institute, “they’ll be able to hit us the Wednesday after never.”

Now for the caveats. It’s not that the North Koreans couldn’t hit the United States. It’s that launching rockets is hard. The U.S.’ Cold War-era Redstone rockets failed repeatedly. That’s why you test your rockets.

But North Korea doesn’t test their rockets. It holds demonstrations of their rocket capabilities, making them seem like fearsome world events. And they either lie about the results or keep silent about the failures. That’s the script that played out in 1998, when a rocket plunked into the Sea of Japan (success!); 2006, when another blew up after 42 seconds (silence); and in 2009, when it swore it got a Kwangmyongsong-2 into orbit but no one else could see or hear the thing.

There’s also reason to believe, with this latest failure, that Pyongyang is getting worse at their launches. “If the North Koreans were making progress with their missile program, you would expect to see them fixing problems after each failure and fine-tuning the technology,” says Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command. “Instead, you see a range of different failure modes, indicating they are not really making much progress and actually may be going backwards as they keep making changes without truly understanding what went wrong in each case.”

Now, if the North Koreans tested their rockets as frequently as the U.S. (and the Russians, and the Chinese) used to test theirs, then yeah, they’d be able to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. So why don’t they?

“They’re under lot of pressure,” says Lewis, “and when they do ‘test’ them, they get sanctioned.” And that’s likely to happen again, as the United Nations Security Council is set to meet tomorrow to discuss another round of punitive measures for the North Koreans.

Peter Beck also downplayed the significance of the missile launch.

”I don’t think it really will impress the average North Korean because the average North Korean is worrying about feeding their family. Whether it succeeded or failed, it doesn’t put food on their table. The world was not the intended audience, it was the North Koreans, it was the military, it was the elites as a way of celebrating their centennial with an elaborate, expensive firecracker.”

Stephan Haggard thinks, that “…the failure of the launch could ease international pressure on the regime.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Bremmer worries about what he can’t find out about the North Korean leadership, and how the South Koreans could respond.

Why are the North Koreans doing this? Traditionally, hostile acts are intended to project confidence and deter threats. It’s worrisome enough if this latest show of bravado is intended for an international audience. But if the real concern is local, if someone within the elite believes a show of strength is needed to safeguard Kim Jong-un’s standing at home, then North Korea may have a whole new generation of surprises in store.

Nick Hansen has worries about one of those surprises.

But more worryingly, Pyongyang also announced that it had begun a five-year program to develop even larger rockets, which could function as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) potentially able to reach the continental United States.

Earlier this month, a South Korean newspaper reported an unconfirmed claim that a U.S. reconnaissance satellite had spotted a new North Korean rocket, probably at the Sanum Dong research and development facility in Pyongyang, where other long-range systems have been observed in the past. According to this report and others that seem to substantiate the North’s claims, this new 40 meter missile is 25 percent longer and has a larger booster than the Unha-3 rocket scheduled for launch this week. Whether this system is functional or a life-size mock-up remains unclear. While impossible to confirm, analyzing satellite images and photographs of the new launch facility, as well as displays at a museum in Pyongyang, seem to suggest that North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and greater capabilities than the one scheduled for testing this week. And there’s a chance that this new, more threatening missile might even be on display in Pyongyang soon, for either the April 15 centenary parade for the late Kim Il Sung or the April 25 military founding day parade.

Hankyoreh also tosses in a harrowing observation: “North Korean launches tend to follow a predictable sequence: the launch, then UN condemnation, followed by a nuclear test.”

What do I think? Andrei Lankov has the proper twist “…what can and what will the international community do after things take such a turn? The honest answer is – pretty much nothing.” I would agree, insomuch as the issue is “doing it to North Korea”. What the international community needs to do is, firstly, maintain sanctions, to keep Pyongyang from actually building a better missile. Secondly, China’s legitimate concerns must be addressed, so that it can reconsider its support for North Korea. Thirdly, South Korea should be rewarded for its, fingers crossed, measured response to the crisis, by allowing it to beef up its conventional defenses, and to redeploy American forces, to respond to a possible missile launch in the future. North Korea is not a direct threat to the United States, and is even less of one after today. Since latency – the issue of North Korea’s capability to move from research to a workable missile tipped with a nuclear warhead – is remote, the United States should put all diplomatic efforts into counter-proliferation. Instead of allowing North Korea to provoke it, Washington should delegate the issue to South Korea, for whom North Korea is an existential threat.

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2 Responses to “The Duck Fails to Quack”

  1. melissajames 13 April 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Thanks for all the links on this issue. I live here in South Korea and although the South Korean media has been reporting on this like crazy, the average Korean is not very concerned. They understand that these things are done more for bravado’s sake than anything else and it hasn’t gotten much more than an eye roll when I’ve brought it up. Now that I live here, I don’t think of North Korea as being as dangerous as I once did. Thanks again for all of the information. 🙂

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