What is the Big Idea?
If rocket launches are a symbol of a country’s ambitions, then what the world witnessed on Friday was North Korea’s failed attempt at a Sputnik moment. The rocket, which broke into pieces harmlessly over the Yellow Sea, suggests that the country has yet to acquire the technology needed to pose a real threat to the United States.
The rocket cost the impoverished country $450 million. This is the third launch since the late 1990s.
So can the world breathe a sigh of relief at this sign of North Korea’s crumbling technology? Quite contrary, as officials say that the failed mission could provoke its young and unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un, to prove his might with more powerful technology.
What is the Significance?
North Korea is surrounded by prosperous countries and every president since Ronald Reagan has tried to get it back on a path of integration with the international community, according to Victor Cha, Asia adviser for former President George W. Bush. It’s unlikely that President Obama is going to make this happen before the election. So what does he, or the next U.S. President get to look forward to as the ongoing saga with North Korea reaches a fever pitch?
“The thing I’m most concerned about is a confluence of factors, a young and untested leadership and economic situation that is getting worse and worse, a food shortage situation that is getting worse and worse and a country that is at the same time trying to cross certain thresholds in terms of their nuclear weapons and their ballistic missiles,” said Cha. “This is a very inflammable combination of factors, and I think they’re all going to come to a head within the next five years.”
But before the crisis even hits U.S. soil, East Asia — the only part of the world that is economically stable — will feel the ripple effect of North Korea’s crisis, says Cha.
“And, at a time when we have a very difficult economic situation in Europe, as well as here in the United States, and Asia, really, is the only part of the world that is growing economically and is a very important part of the global financial recovery,” he said. “This sort of crisis could have much larger effects than simply the problems located in this isolated part of the world on the Korean Peninsula.”
Cha’s new book The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Futuredetails a country riddled with contradictions. Its nuclear ambitions and subsequent failures should not be dismissed as crazy or trivialized as missteps (even wealthy nations have failed launches). They have a stake at keeping peace in their country and is willing to take risks and act belligerently to do so since they have less to lose. “There is certainly an element of that in North Korean rationality,” said Cha. “But they’re not crazy. They’re quite rational in terms of how they behave.”
North Korea’s Friday the 13th misfortune is not an opportunity for the U.S. to gloat, as it is on a path to being the first country outside of Russia and China to have long-range missiles and nuclear weapons that could reach the U.S.
The road to acceptance by the international community will be a long one for the hermit kingdom. They’d like to have diplomatic relations with the world, “but they want to do it on their own terms, which means they would love to have political relations with the United States but as a nuclear weapons state.”