Just shy of eight months after a very public and humiliating failure, the successful long-range missile launch Wednesday by Kim Jong Un’s North Korean ballistic-missile program gave the world a reason to re-evaluate the threat from his rogue nation.
In doing so, he elevated not only his stature among his own people but also the global threat level, and therefore North Korea’s spot on the second-term agenda of President Barack Obama, one already crowded with foreign policy concerns.
“A highly provocative act” is how National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described the launch.
“We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure that the North Korean regime is further isolated, that it is further punished for its flagrant violations of international obligations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The United Nations also condemned the launch, which violated sanctions that the world body had imposed on North Korea for its possession of nuclear weapons. The U.N. Security Council planned to discuss “an appropriate response.”
The successful launch, which caught the world by surprise, occurred at 7:49 p.m. EST Tuesday. The North American Aerospace Defense Command tracked the missile, describing its flight in unemotional terms: “Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
After several earlier failed attempts, the long-range rocket was successful in sending a satellite into orbit.
While NORAD noted that the missile never posed a threat to North America, those who study North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, agree that its success does just that.
“The world just became a little more dangerous,” said Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea and security at the RAND Corp. “American foreign policy towards North Korea had been one of strategic neglect. Those days are over.”
Bennett noted that concern didn’t arise simply from the fact that the missile worked. Kim had very publically admitted failure after a missile broke apart shortly after takeoff on April 13. The failure and the admission were thought to have weakened his support within the North Korean political power structure.
Further signs that Kim was being challenged came from the talk of defectors, and what appeared to be a purge of a number of the nation’s old military leaders. In a poor nation with a history of missile failures, it all looked chaotic.
Last weekend, there were signs that North Koreans had to repair the missile on the launch pad, re-enforcing international doubts.
“No one expected them to be able to fix it and be successful so quickly,” Bennett said. “That they did is not good news.”
Ellen Kim, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense research center, said the speed of the repairs was a concern. While it’s clear that North Korea still has scientific hurdles to solve before it can threaten the United States with a nuclear missile, the timeline just got shorter, she said.
“They won’t be ready anytime soon, but it’s harder now to say when that is,” Kim said.
Beyond the threat, the launch was important to the control of Kim Jong Un, who accomplished what his father, Kim Jong Il, had hoped would be his legacy. The success in one of his father’s most cherished but vexing programs came just shy of a year since his father’s death.
Cheehyung Kim, a fellow in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Duke University and an expert on North Korea, said the success, even though technically crude, provided Kim Jong Un “with a lot of gravitas” among his people, similar to winning an Olympic gold medal. He “has to show something grand, fast.”
Philip Yun, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation group, and a senior adviser on U.S. foreign policy for North Korea during the Clinton administration, said the real threat from the launch was an overreaction that would lead to more defense spending on unnecessary systems.
“The sky is not falling. We shouldn’t be panicked,” he said. “It’s time now for a serious, sober look at North Korea as it is, not what we fear it might be.”