North Korea’s success in putting a satellite in orbit, after four previous unsuccessful attempts, will satisfy the hardliners in Pyongyang who care only about their privileged status and not about the pain and suffering additional sanctions will impose on the people of North Korea.
The three-stage missile that put this satellite in orbit is a potential threat to the region and the United States. The launch is an act of defiance, an act meant to intimidate the international community. It’s a message from the hardliners in Pyongyang who continue to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons; who continue to increase North Korea’s stockpile of plutonium and uranium-based nuclear weapons; who continue to sell weapons and short and medium range missiles to rogue states. This is a trajectory of escalation and confrontation, with unforeseen consequences that have to be addressed now, before it’s too late.
Nothing to prove
North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un, could address these issues especially now, after this successful missile launch. He doesn’t have to prove himself to those hardliners who want confrontation with the United States and South Korea. Confrontation for them is job security. It permits them to retain their privileged status, in a country that has problems feeding its people.
These so-called elites fear change; fear any type of reform, knowing that their military first policy of strife and confrontation, which has made North Korea an isolated and economically poor country, has been a disaster for the country and its people. Thus they fear that change will mean they’re out of power. This is what they fear most.
Kim Jong-Un can change this. He has shown during his first year in power that he doesn’t fear these hardliners. That he understands North Korea’s economic plight and the need to change course. His initial personnel moves were encouraging. He assigned a Party official, Ch’oe Ryong-hae, to oversee the Korean People’s Army. This was an unprecedented, courageous decision, having a Party official oversee the military. He removed the Minister of Defense and the KPA Chief of staff, both hardliners. He retained and empowered his uncle, Jang Song Taek, a reputed moderate who has traveled to China and the West and reportedly is interested in economic reform.
Willing to take steps
These and other personnel decisions indicated a willingness on the part of Kim Jong-Un to remove the old guard; remove the hardliners who are desperate to remain in power, pursuing a failed policy of confrontation and intimidation.
It is hoped, Kim Jong-Un can pocket this Dec. 12 launch and use it against those hardliners who may agitate against his leadership, claiming that any type of change or reform is weakness. Kim Jong-Un defied the international community and launched a missile that put a satellite in orbit, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions. He should stop here and now work with those moderates he recently appointed to ensure that North Korea immediately returns to negotiations and unilaterally announces a moratorium on all missile launches and nuclear tests.
China and the U.S. have leverage with North Korea and its new leader. They should use their leverage to convince Kim Jong-Un that ultimate denuclearization will result in economic incentives, security assurances and eventual normalization of relations. This is what the people of North Korea want. This is what the international community needs.
Joseph R. DeTrani was the special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006, the National Intelligence North Korea mission manager from 2006 to 2010, and the director of the National Counterproliferation Center until January 2012.