A disturbing possibility is that North Korea’s relationship with Iran was involved in the successful launch. The two countries have military-scientific ties, presumably centered on North Korea’s main export product, ballistic missiles and their technology. Thus the Iranians may share the North Korean ICBM capability, even though they have never launched any such missile.
The North Korean launch apparently surprised Western intelligence agencies. They thought they had seen the North Koreans assemble their missile on the launch pad only to find some problem that forced disassembly. On 9 December the North Koreans announced that they were extending the 13-day launch window (originally 10-22 December) to 29 December to fix a problem with the first stage. The rocket reportedly was removed from the pad and then replaced, the assumption being that it would need considerable adjustment after reassembly. It was confidently reported that the missile launch had been postponed several weeks. However, the rocket was fired early on 12 December. According to a North Korean military source, that date had been planned from the outset; the announced extension was disinformation.
We appear unable to understand what is happening at the main North Korean missile-test center, which means that we may be unable to detect preparation to launch missiles aimed at us. The South Korean press reported that U.S. intelligence relied too much on satellite photographs, but the problem actually seems to have been wishful thinking. U.S. analysts assumed that the North Koreans were delaying or even canceling their test in response to widespread international pressure. As a consequence, later photos showing that the rocket was being reassembled were ignored. The North Korean announcement of a delay was too readily accepted. Were the North Koreans testing their ability to deceive Western intelligence? Was the dismantling part of a disinformation operation? How much should we blame wishful thinking on our part?
The belief in international pressure is part of a deeper failure to understand the motivation of the North Korean leadership. This failure may well be reflected in reliance on the threat of intensified economic sanctions (and the offer of economic incentives) to curb the country’s nuclear and missile programs. It is not clear why either sanctions or incentives should necessarily influence a regime that in the past has been quite willing to starve its population to pay for continued military power. Ultimately, sanctions act mainly against the North Korean population. Experience shows that regimes can always evade sanctions to some extent. That was certainly the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
This is a serious intelligence issue, in the broadest sense. We tend to mirror-image, to assume that others think the way we do. That leads us to imagine that the central interest of any government is to ensure the prosperity of its population. But the greatest interest of many regimes is simply to remain in power. It happens that democracies are designed to force governments to concentrate on maintaining prosperity, because an angry population can eject them from office. If what keeps the leadership in office is a relatively thin stratum of police and military officers, then what counts is their prosperity, not the population’s. Heightened tension can help a regime stay in power, because it can convince the population to sacrifice in the regime’s interest. To what extent do our policies have anything to do with this kind of situation? How can North Korea’s leaders welcome our hope of reunification, of putting them out of office? Why should they cooperate with us?
The North Korean regime may see continued tension—though not war—as a necessary condition for its survival. Perceived foreign threats help justify the sacrifices of the population. That was the case with the Soviet Union. The Soviet government periodically sought detente with the West in order to heal its over-militarized economy. Whenever it did so, it escalated internal perceptions of the foreign threat to cement its social control. In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan demanded that external detente be coupled with internal relaxation of the perceived foreign threat. The Soviet government imploded. Nuclear missiles would help ensure that the desired foreign threats cannot rise to the point that the North Korean regime might be endangered.
North Korea’s leaders may well see economic aid as an attack rather than an incentive to abandon what we view as its threatening military posture. For a dictatorship, just as for a Western politician, much of politics is about patronage. National poverty can be an asset if the regime is the only source of desired goods. That was certainly true in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after Western sanctions were applied. The North Korean regime may feel that economic liberalization (offering its population decent prospects) would also endanger it, just as it helped destroy the Soviet Union. It might be argued that Chinese liberalization has released energies that have made the Chinese Communist leaders noticeably nervous.
North Korea is not entirely self-sufficient. China is its most important trading partner and is adamantly opposed to Korean reunification (on South Korean terms) because they do not want non-communist regimes on their borders (which raises interesting questions about Siberia). Presumably, they would not welcome North Korean entry into the nuclear ICBM club, because that would give the North Koreans leverage over them, but it seems unlikely that they have decided how to balance North Korean political survival over this kind of threat.
For other countries, access to North Korean missile (and now, perhaps, nuclear) technology is far more valuable than Western trade. The main threat to this trade is that U.N. members like the United States will interdict shipping. Reportedly, many Chinese firms have been glad to provide cover for North Korean weapons trade, and it seems clear that no one is eager to attract Chinese anger by sanctioning these firms.
As in the past, the December North Korean launch demonstrated that Aegis ships, many of which carry anti-ballistic-missile weapons, could detect and track the North Korean missile. Thus the South Koreans announced that one of their Aegis destroyers detected and tracked the missile soon after it lifted off. The South Korean ships were not even intended for ballistic-missile defense, and presumably did not have Aegis radars upgraded for that purpose. Overall, the test emphasized the value of mobile Aegis ballistic-missile-defense ships, which are the only ballistic-missile defense assets that can be deployed near North Korea without escalating tension on the Korean peninsula. Proximity makes it possible for the South to intercept a North Korean missile in its most vulnerable (ascent) phase of flight.
The North Korean launch has encouraged Japan and the Philippines to install U.S.-supplied X-band missile-defense radars that will be linked with Aegis ships and possibly with Aegis installations ashore. Taiwan already has such a radar, which detected and tracked the missile, and observed as the first and second stages fell into the Philippine Sea. The Chinese have opposed such installations because they help counter the ballistic missiles the Chinese use to pressure various Asian countries and, incidentally, the Chinese antiship ballistic missile.