North Korea

Experts divided over North Korean rocket's political target

Everyone agrees one big aim of North Korea's rocket launch was to influence others abroad

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 5:11am

North Korea's rocket launch marked a huge leap in its strategic capabilities, but given its timing, experts are divided over who the launch was aimed at influencing.

With South Koreans going to the polls to elect a new president on December 19, some believe that the timing was aimed southward, particularly given that the South's own space programme is moribund. South Korea has twice failed to launch a satellite. A third attempt is on hold, because of technical problems.

Seoul's presidential race is between two candidates. On the right, Park Geun-hye; on the left, Moon Jae-in. Moon is more favourable toward North Korea than Park, saying he will restart the "Sunshine Policy". Moon was formerly chief-of-staff to the late president Roh Moo-hyun, the most enthusiastic champion of unconditional engagement.

But even Park wants more engagement than the current Lee Myung-bak administration. Lee's hard-line approach held humanitarian aid in a (failed) attempt to pressurise Pyongyang into halting its nuclear programmes.

If anything, North Korea's launch is likelier to favour the left.

"An increasing number of South Koreans believe we need a government that can reconcile with North Korea," said Dr Kim Tae-woo, a Seoul-based strategic expert. "This is the psychological impact of North Korean provocations."

Yet both Seoul and Tokyo are already well within North Korea's gunsights: Seoul lies inside artillery range, while Tokyo falls within the radius of medium range missiles.

Given this, and given that a favoured motif in North Korean propaganda is missiles raining down upon Washington, most say that the launch is aimed more at influencing the United States, from which Pyongyang seeks a peace treaty to officially end the Korean war and restart diplomatic relations.

Dr Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korean researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul, said: "I think the United States cannot postpone negotiations any further, because North Korean now has both a nuclear programme and a delivery system. They will have to urgently negotiate."

Yet experts say that while the North may be willing to negotiate away its future missile and nuclear programmes, it will never abandon existing weapons. Seen in this light, the date of the launch, five days before the anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death and seven days before South Korea's election, is irrelevant.

Dan Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Group's Seoul office, said: "Shrill propaganda is ongoing all year, and this is a capability [the North Koreans] have wanted to have. It is about 'military first'."