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Thoughts On: North Korea’s Most Recent Missile Test

I can’t call myself any sort of expert on the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or “North Korea”), but I’ve been keeping an eye on the news regarding them, their missile program, their economy, and other news that comes out of that country… whether it’s a documentary trip with a couple Harlem Globetrotters or Donald Trump saying he would meet with current dictator Kim Jong-Un. Everyone knows it’s a volatile situation, and needs some careful understanding of what information is already available and what’s already worked.

So I thought I might offer a few thoughts from an admitted amateur aficionado of the most recent news: another missile launched, and one that should make more news than the previous. That being, the DPRK just tested a missile without a defective flaw the level of a Chevy Pinto.

So for years now, DPRK state media has been claiming it has missile capabilities that can reach as far as Washington DC, with the implication (if not outright claim) that such a missile could be tipped with a nuclear warhead. Now, as soon as I say that, let’s clear that claim right now: there’s no indication that such missile technology exists in the country, as evidenced by the fact that all of their previous missile and satellite rocket attempts have met in failure. Their test in February 2016 to put a satellite in orbit, according to CNN’s reporting, resulted in that satellite “tumbling in orbit” and unable to do much of anything – IF ANYTHING – of use. DPRK reps have said it was a scientific mission, but when crossed with the rhetoric that leaves the country officially all the time, it’s not credible to think there wasn’t a militaristic purpose for such an attempted advance. So while it’s still apparently in orbit, it’s useless.

That’s the first thing to know, and the most successful of their rocket testing so far. Their in-country development has resulted in attempts at long-range missiles that can’t even reach the Pacific Ocean yet, falling impotently into the sea minutes after takeoff. If we take their most well-known missile, the Taepodong, it’s using their older rocket technology to attempt to extend the available distance of their smaller, more conventional rockets. Their Taeopodong-2 missile is the most recent launch before this week, using four fuel cells for the smaller rockets they do have (called the Rodong missile) to build it further; it’s a bit like taking a motor meant for a smaller boat, taking four of them, and putting them up on a bigger boat. It’s the “no, just hit it harder” approach. And it hasn’t worked yet.

The question would be, why are they developing missiles at all? It’s easy to just say “because they’re led by a mad scientist from a bad Bond film”, but that’s not really the case. To sum up in brief: The DPRK has long held a deep-seated resentment for the US from the Korean War, known in the US as the “Forgotten War”, that split the North and South halves of the Korean peninsula after the end of World War II. Much like the US and communist USSR split Germany in the aftermath, Japan had controlled the entire Korean peninsula for about 40 years, and after their defeat they lost their control between capitalist and communist forces. The US backed the South, the USSR and newly-communist China backed the North. The war broke out when the North invaded the South in 1950, and back and forth they traded the original capital of Seoul multiple times before the arbitrary border was renewed in 1953.

The guerrilla fighter that took command in the north was Kim Il-Sung, considered the “Father” of the modern DPRK state. When he died in 1994, his son Kim Jong-Il took over, and drastically ramped up their weapons program, mostly likely as a deterrent to fighting the quickly-developing South (the North had developed earlier and more quickly, but grew stagnant much like the USSR did before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of the USSR itself in 1991). It’s a stance that HIS predecessor, his son Kim Jong-Un, has maintained in his reign. It’s more likely they developed their defense and offensive capabilities because of that stagnation; those at the top want to maintain their wealth and status, and to do that they would need to push their own strength. What happened with Japan is not what they want to happen again, and what better way to prevent that then to flex one’s muscles to deter such an attack?

For more and better explanation, here’s a link to the Crash Course video for even further specifics:

All of this is important context. The DPRK regime has been in a self-preservation status-quo for decades now. Especially since, because of their actions, an evolving China and Russian Federation aren’t backing quite as steadfast as they have – neither being a steadfast communist state any longer, both being more capitalist and involved in foreign diplomacy. Which is something the leadership in the DPRK has avoided, instead attempting to gain attention by being destructively powerful. And it makes some sense, since they’re overtly (to the outside world and increasingly to their own population) an oppressive dictatorship, their economy is in shambles (with a growing private sector they refuse to even acknowledge), their few exports are exceptionally cheap and limited, and as an almost-totally isolated nation they don’t have the clout necessary to be considered a world power… which they desperately want to be considered.

So, muscle is all they have. And truth be told, they have something to back it up; even though its military might is primarily made up of older technology like outdated tanks and small arms (they still use the AK-47 as a soldier’s primary gun), they have a metric shit-ton of that force, as well as older missile tech that can still reach the nearby ROK (“Republic of Korea”, or “South Korea”) capital of Seoul. And with their nuclear capabilities – though they’re still not as strong as the nuke the US dropped on Hiroshima – they can do plenty of damage to their immediate neighbors of the ROK and Japan, whom they threaten on a regular basis. (Source for military power is ABC.)

Which leads back to the most recent test. In theory, the missile they fired could potentially reach a lot further than they previously could. The Hwasong-12 missile that was fired on May 14th, if pointed properly, could reach as far as the most recent estimates of their other missile tech: they could do damage to the US base on the island of Guam. And that’s not nothing. With that range, the brass of the DPRK have to be considered more of an active threat; they want a seat at the discussion table instead of feeling pushed around by bigger, more powerful countries. In my estimation, this is for regime-protection only, and can’t realistically be used to raid the South to unify the country as their common line consistently is… they’re using such militaristic means to keep the stand-off going.

In essence, think of the many powerful countries involved in this situation – primarily the DPRK, ROK, Japan, China, Russia, and the USA – in a sort of multi-faceted chess game. Everyone else is playing with a pretty full set of pieces, like pawns and rooks and knights, while the DPRK is playing with only the King (their highest-up government officials and their subordinates) and a Queen (nuclear warheads and a short-range means of delivering one) on the board. Sure they can do a lot of damage, but they know for certain that there are too many opponents that can – and, vitally, WILL – strike them down should they even try. So, they maintain a stalemate position: they threaten, everyone else take a blockading position (like sanctions). And like a crying child that wants to flip the board, DPRK officials will make threats they know they don’t have the means to back up. (You can check out all of the sanctions currently on the DPRK at the US Treasury’s website.)

For the TL;dr crowd: North Korea can do some damage, but they won’t because they know they’re outclassed. Like the little kid on the playground that talks a big tough-guy game, but when pushed doesn’t have the means to push back. And their proverbial “big brothers”, China and Russia, have taken enough shit from the smaller friend that they’re less likely to help defend in a pinch. They’re not gonna suddenly nuke ANYBODY because if they do, they know their rich elites will be wiped off the face of the planet.

So there you go. Some context about the situation, some background on why the situation is there in the first place, and the news of the day. For the record I don’t know how to handle the given situation – there’s even more minutiae to the negotiation process I’m simply not privy to even as a guess – but hopefully this can help to start the dialog and continue the conversation.

Stand Tall, my friends. And if you know what to do about any of this, or have any further insights, I look forward to reading the comments.

2 replies on “Thoughts On: North Korea’s Most Recent Missile Test”

“evidenced by the fact that all of their previous missile and satellite rocket attempts have met in failure”
This is largely incorrect. DPRK has two satellites in orbit, both are functional. While KMS-4 initially had stability issues, they were corrected (meaning DPRK has positive control over the satellite). DPRK has two successful satellite launches with orbital insertions, which are two significant tests of a booster stage for an ICBM as well as success in working with orbital mechanics. As far as success in missile launches, look the stats. They are making significant progress.

You’re right, I could have been more clear about that. I didn’t mean to imply they hadn’t made any advancement – they certainly have, as evidenced especially by the most recent launch – but those satellites are still non-functional/useless even if they’re in orbit.

Thank you for contributing to the conversation about this!

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