North Korea’s launch of a Taep’odong-2 prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over the weekend was a political success for the Kim Jong-Il regime on a series of levels. The North effectively used international law to test its missile technology, the Obama administration, and the resolve of UNSC and the other 5 members of the Six-Party talks.


True, it was a technical failure. According to U.S., South Korean, and Japanese intelligence, the missile’s second and third stages failed, and its payload fell into the ocean instead of achieving orbit. The missile test also failed in its immediate strategic objective – to prove that North Korea has a nuclear deterrent.

Progress on Missile Technology

However, the April 5 missile travelled twice the distance of any previous missile the North has launched thus far. Preliminary analysis by South Korean rocket scientists indicates not only is there no new satellite in orbit but that the missile’s warhead is too narrow to house a satellite and instead looks almost identical in shape to the warhead of an actual of the Taep’odong-2 missile. While further analysis of the rocket launch is still forthcoming, it is clear North Korea has made some improvements in its ICBM’s range if not capabilities.

Bolsters Flagging Regime at Home

Meanwhile, in North Korea the test signaled to North Koreans that Kim Jong-Il’s hold on power is as strong as ever. North Korea’s domestic news agency hailed the launch as a huge success, declaring the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite was orbiting earth transmitting patriotic hymns. Additionally, the test took place on the eve of the April 9 assembly of the North Korea’s parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), which is expected to renew Kim Jong-Il’s five-year term as chairman of the National Defense Commission, the country’s top military decision-making body.

North Korea set the precedent for launching a missile on the eve of the SPA in 1998 when it launched a Taep’odong-1 test missile ahead of the SPA meeting in which Kim Jong-Il first consolidated his power over the isolated dictatorship. This time the test follows 12 months of international speculation about the waning health of Kim Jong-Il, who his successor would be, and whether the “Dear Leader” was still in control. Is it possible that Kim Jong-Il felt it necessary to launch this missile in order to belay doubts in the SPA and in North Korean society about his fitness to continue ruling?

Undermines Six Party Talks

The missile test also served North Korean international affairs objectives of exploiting divisions within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members and also between members of the Six Party talks (6PT). Use of ballistic missile technology whether for delivery of a satellite or a missile warhead is indeed in violation of UN Resolution 1718. Even if the missile is, as North Korea declares, not a Taep’odong-2 but is rather a Unha-2 rocket – a highly specious claim – the possibilities for duel use of any “new” Unha-1 technologies in improving ballistic missiles violates 1718. But more importantly, North Korea took all the necessary steps to arrange for an internationally acceptable satellite launch, including joining the Outer Space Treaty and giving sufficient notice of affected air and sea transport routes ahead of the April 5 launch. Given that rockets used to propel satellites into space are basically modified ballistic missiles, how else was North Korea to launch a satellite, if that was its genuine intent?

Whatever its intent, North Korea is actively seeking loopholes in the international norms and regulations that constrain its activities, and it is doing so in order to exacerbate existing divisions within the UNSC and between the other 5 parties involved in the 6PT. The rocket launch was effective to some degree in that it laid bare the divisions within the other 5 parties to the 6PT. The United States, Japan, and South Korea all declared the need for a stern response from the United Nations following the test. China and Russia on the other hand cautioned restraint and careful action and as of April 8 still refuse to agree to further sanctions against North Korea. This seems a worthless battle though; the April 5 test only attests to the failure of UN sanctions or resolutions to deter North Korea from conducting its missile tests.

Whatever actions the Security Council may eventually take, they promise to have little effect on North Korea’s actions. One of North Korea’s long term goals in the Six Party Talks is to build a preferential bilateral relationship with the United States that simultaneously benefits North Korea and estranges America from its traditional allies and strategic partners in Northeast Asia. The failure of the Security Council to reach consensus on how to punish the North for the April 5 launch supports that objective.

Sends Message to China

The test casts further doubt on China’s ability to wield its influence over the North, and that level of influence now seems less significant than the Chinese or other 6PT members may have believed or hoped. North Korea presents China with a complicated quandary. China’s North Korea policy lies at the heart of a nexus of its foreign policy objectives, and North Korea knows this. China must work with the United States to contain North Korea. It wants to maintain influence with North Korea and that influence is a major part of China’s credibility in being involved in handling regional security affairs. In part, building a constructive relationship on security matters within the 6PT is helping China to mend fences with Japan and South Korea. Indeed, success in the 6PT is critical to China as proof that it supports progressive non-proliferation and arms control efforts, can be an honest and effective broker for peace, and is a useful partner in responding to global security threats, especially in Northeast Asia. At the same time though, China must also sustain North Korea to prevent the humanitarian and other security threats that could become realities if the state collapsed. Thus, while China needs a success in the 6PT, it can only leverage influence with North Korea so much before the North stops complying.

Tests Obama Team

The April 5 missile launch was also a first test for the temperance of the Obama administration in the face of North Korea’s brinkmanship, much like North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was for President Clinton in 1993 and its declaration that it continues to build its nuclear programs was for President Bush in 2002. The intention of the North here is to conflate its capacity to pose a credible threat to U.S. and regional security and attempt to define terms of interaction with the United States in the North’s favor.

Given the divisions among UNSC members, Obama responded as best he could. Ahead of April 5 he worked behind the scenes of the G20 summit to build consensus with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, while getting clarity from the Chinese and Russian leaders on their probable responses. On April 5, Obama stated that the U.S. will respond sternly within the context of the UNSC, but he did not rise to the obvious provocation, and the missile test actually gave credence to Obama’s declaration of his administration’s commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons in the world. Obama’s carefully worded condemnation is a good short term response, but the real challenge for the U.S. and the other 6PT members will be to unify international condemnation for North Korea’s actions, and build that consensus into future multilateral negotiations with the North. If the UNSC cannot develop an operative consensus among its members in response to April 5, that will only further complicate the objective of denuclearizing the peninsula.

What Now?

Is North Korea serious about joining international community, ending its nuclear brinkmanship? North Korea is serious about gaining as many benefits for the Kim JI regime as it can and knows that nuclear weapons and coercive diplomacy are moderately effective ways to get what it wants.

North Korea’s missile test implies it has more influence over the 6PT and international efforts to denuclearize it or eliminate its missile programs. The way North Korea uses its nuclear and missile development programs as bargaining chips, it seems very unlikely that they will meaningfully give up either their nuclear weapons development program or their missile defense programs. There is a relatively high probability that the North will actively seek other means by which to test its missile and nuclear capabilities in the future. So far, sanctions and international condemnation of the North have little effect on their behavior or activities.

As the Atlantic Council advocates in its reports on these affairs, the only way to sustain forward momentum in denuclearization of the North Korea and develop a security framework for the region in the long term is for the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to work out a series of broad agreements between each other that will help to solidify consensus opinion on how to denuclearize North Korea and begin to integrate it into the international community. If the five other parties cannot coordinate their interests and policy efforts with regard to North Korea at least to the degree that there is no division among them for the North to exploit, denuclearization efforts will become increasingly difficult and stemming North Korea’s proliferation activities will probably continue unabated.

Patrick deGategno is associate director of the Atlantic Council Asia program.