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The Evil Hermit and His Rockets

20 June 2006

The Evil Hermit and His Rockets

By Gwynne Dyer

When I was a little boy, and I knew that I was being watched, I would sometimes put on a show for the hidden audience — generally by acting in ways that I thought were tough and dangerous — without ever letting on that I knew the observers were there. And that’s exactly the relationship that the North Korean regime has with the US satellite cameras that are almost constantly overhead.

This time, it’s a rocket: a great big two-stage Taepodong 2 rocket that has been erected on its launch pad at the Musudan-ri base in north-eastern North Korea. Pyongyang has not said anything officially about ending the moratorium on rocket launches that it voluntarily imposed on itself in 1999, shortly after test-firing a shorter-range missile across Japan into the Pacific, but it appears to be fuelling the rocket.

The American spy satellites picked up all the activity, of course, and now the US government is having an entirely predictable fit. Test-firing this new, longer-range missile “would once again show North Korea determined to deepen its isolation, determined not to take a path that is the path of compromise and a path of peace, but rather instead to once again saber-rattle,” warned US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “It would be a very serious matter indeed.”

That is presumably what Kim Jong-il’s regime wanted her to say, since the whole point of the exercise is to stir up anxiety among North Korea’s neighbours and more distant adversaries and force them back to the bargaining table. Pyongyang needs a deal that brings in foreign food, fuel and cash if the regime is to survive, and the only thing it has to trade is a promise to stop looking so dangerous. Which means that until it gets the deal, it must go on looking dangerous.

The “six-party talks” (North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) is where the deal would be made, and those talks only came into existence because of panic about North Korea’s alleged nuclear weapons. (“Alleged”, because although Pyongyang officially claims to have nukes, it might well be bluffing.) But the talks have been stalled for the past six months because the United States has imposed financial sanctions against the North Korean government in retaliation for its counterfeiting of US dollars.

Governments rarely admit their crimes and apologise; North Korea never does. So how can Pyongyang force everybody back to the six-party table without admitting wrong-doing, and get some aid and security guarantees out of them? By looking dangerous again, of course. But an actual nuclear weapons test might provoke extreme reactions (and besides, there may be no reliable nuclear weapons). Whereas another rocket test, this time with a longer-range missile, conveys just the right amount of menace.

That, at any rate, is the logic within the North Korean regime, which is not best known for the subtlety of its negotiating tactics. So why does the United States keep falling for it?

Partly because North Korea’s rockets are a quite useful threat. They are useful to a Japanese government that is determined to commit Japan to much closer military cooperation with the United States, but must persuade a reluctant population to stop fretting about the “peace constitution” of 1947. They are also useful to the United States, because they are a much more tactful justification for the administration’s beloved ballistic missile defence programme than the Chinese rockets that the BMD is actually meant to intercept.

And above all, North Korea’s rockets are not really very threatening. North Korea may or may not have a few nuclear weapons, and it might be able to deliver them as far as Japan, but it has no functional capability to reach the United States,.nor is it likely to develop one in the near future. (The best guess on the range of the still untested Taepodong 2 is that it might be able to reach Alaska.) If Pyongyang ever did attempt to fire a nuclear weapon at South Korea or Japan, it would be reduced to radioactive cinders by the US retaliation within hours.

When North Korea originally set out down the road towards nuclear weapons and long-range rockets at least a decade ago, it was undoubtedly seeking the ability to deter an attack against it by much more powerful potential enemies: South Korea, Japan or the United States.

It has now more or less achieved that deterrence, and apart from some questions about the credibility of its nuclear weapons claims, that should be the end of the story. Maybe it could be bribed to give them up and come back under the jurisdiction of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although that would take a lot of foreign aid and some very firm security guarantees.

But in the meantime, the North Korean “threat” serves a number of different agendas, so we can expect to hear more about this huge and terrifying rocket.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“When…Treaty”)