Behind North Korea's Rocket Launch

North Korea threw the world a curveball by launching its rocket yesterday, just two days after announcing a delay until December 29 due to technical deficiencies. The timing of the launch is puzzling and abrupt given the failed launch in April and that leadership transitions in North Korea?s neighboring countries have not been solidified.

Why did the North Koreans launch the rocket now with mixed signals on the schedule?

The main reasons for the timing of the rocket launch appear to be due to internal politics within North Korea. First, the rocket launch was a tool to showcase the new leadership in the North Korean military. The Kim Jong-un regime has recently been reshuffling the military that was long treasured by his late father Kim Jong-il. The young Kim surprised many by replacing a couple of key military officials, namely former Vice Marshall Ri Yong-ho and former defense minister Kim Jong-gak, who were both considered to be powerful old-guard defenders of Kim Jong-il?s military-first policy. It is believed that Kim Jong-un transferred the export rights from the military to the party.

The recent changes in the military indicate that Kim Jong-un needed to test the new guards as well as prove the capability of the reformed military. In other words, the rocket launch was a method to showcase confidence internally to its people and externally to the international community. After all, North Korea can claim the ?satellite? launch to fulfill its goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation by 2012.

Second, Kim Jong-un needed to remain close to the legacy of the Kim trinity for his legitimacy. In light of the recent reshuffling of the military, as well as the failed April rocket launch near the centennial birthday celebration of Kim Il-sung, the young Kim needed to boost his legitimacy by demonstrating his loyalty to the bloodline. What better timing other than the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong-il?s death on December 17, 2011? One day before the launch on December 11, KCNA released a documentary to commemorate Kim Jong-il?s 1 year anniversary which stated that ?the film shows the historical scenes of the army and people of the DPRK who turned out to successfully carry out the cause of perpetuating the memory of the leader and the Songun revolutionary cause under the leadership of the dear respected Marshal Kim Jong Un, true to the firm pledge they made before the bier of Kim Jong Il.?

In another KCNA article (Korean version) posted on the same day, Kim Jong-il was referred to as the sun of Songun (sun-gun-tae-yang) who lives forever, perhaps paralleling the ?satellite? that will supposedly orbit around space. Moreover, the fact that the word Songun appeared seven times in that article may also imply Kim Jong-un?s attempt to identify with his father?s will to avoid completely derailing the elite support that remains from his father?s reign.

If North Korea?s decision had been driven by foreign policy before domestic politics, the Kim regime would have waited until the new year to test the new administrations in South Korea and Japan and into the second term of the Obama administration. Moreover, a rocket launch would only help the conservative party in gaining support from the South Korean public, which indicates that the South Korean presidential election was not a major element in North Korea?s internal calculations.

Why mixed signals?

Given the Dec. 10 announcement that the launch would be delayed until the 29th, what is the rationale behind the mixed signals from North Korea?

One scenario is that it could have simply been an easy mechanical fix. While Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo and the international community speculated that the rocket will be removed from the launch pad for repair and held their breaths for an extra week, Pyongyang could have found the technical problem to be minor and easy to fix.

The other scenario is that the mixed signal was intentionally planned to avoid international attention, especially media attention, given the high-profile failure in April amidst the international press that were invited to cover the launch. North Korea wanted to hedge against another potential failure. If the latter scenario is true, it confirms that the launch was mostly targeted towards the domestic audience.

The seemingly rushed timeline denotes that the launch was largely driven by internal pressure rather than external forces. While one cannot ignore North Korea?s calculation of gaining increased leverage at the negotiating table due to the success of the rocket launch, the North?s attention at the moment is still largely focused on consolidating power for Kim and the new guards in the military.

The international community will present this case to the United Nations Security Council while the United States, South Korea and others have strongly condemned the launch. At this juncture, the potential of future engagement policy with North Korea in early 2013 grows fainter.

(Sarah K. Yun is director of public affairs & regional Issues at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, DC. Email: Sky@keia.org)