North Korea has carried through with its threat to carry out a rocket launch in December, with the successful firing of a “satellite” into orbit. This in contrast to the embarrassing failure of April’s launch. The launch caught many off-guard, with neither South Korea, Japan or the US expecting the fateful date to come today. Only China commented on the launch with knowing foresight.
As has been the case with previous North Korean rocket launches, and its poorly-concealed nuclear programme in general, the posturing is all-important. North Korea, the world’s most politically isolated country, gets its latest moment in the spotlight. Regional and world leaders are forced to consider, even if only for a couple of days, the possible ramifications of the latest North Korean military threat. Was the launch a cover for test-firing long-range rockets capable of carrying ballistic warheads? Probably. But do the North Koreans have the technology to produce sophisticated nuclear weapons and the ability to attach such weapons to such a ballistic warhead? Most analysts think not.
Therefore we have the same intriguing yet frankly common scenario. Kim Jong-Un has proved his military “intentions”. He has sufficiently scared the South Koreans, Japanese and Americans that negotiations will surely be just around the corner. Natural disasters and famine continue to haunt the nation and a chronic fuel shortage has persisted for decades. If history is anything to go by, Kim Jong-Un and his military cronies will soon follow this latest launch with a call for aid in exchange for a solemn promise that no such tests will be conducted again and that North Korea will forever abandon its nuclear programme. Regional leaders will have little choice but to cautiously welcome such an offer. After all, should the unthinkable happen and the North Koreans actually achieve nuclearisation, they will have a slightly stronger tool to bargain with.
The reason the world should not be concerned by North Korea’s latest posturing is China. Whilst the Chinese are often condemned for being the North Koreans closest allies, it is crucial that they maintain this position. In the past, it is only the Chinese that have been able to rein in their belligerent neighbours. Sharing a common background of Japanese occupation and communist politics, the North Koreans respect Chinese regional leadership. It is little surprise then that Kim Jong-Il’s few foreign visits in the later years of his life were on his armoured train across the Chinese border.
It is interesting to note that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman termed the December rocket launch “regrettable”. This suggests that the North Koreans may have defied advice from their Chinese patrons. Whilst that might be worrying, the Chinese have in the past cleverly balanced the need to cool the North Koreans warmongering (and thus appease the West) with offering diplomatic support to the North Koreans and therefore preventing overbearing sanctions being imposed on the dictatorship.
Unless Iran helps to nuclearise North Korea in a real “Axis of Evil” and Kim Jong-Un turns his back on his neighbours, the world can be grateful for the stabilising role of the Chinese in the East Asia region…at least in this instance.