NORK Rocket Failure Affords West an Opportunity to Dial Down Condemnation

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket.

North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket.

Nearly a month after North Korea announced it would launch a rocket carrying an earth-observation satellite in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and, at least by western accounts, in violation of the recently struck “Leap Day Deal,” the North Korean rocket, a three-stage Unha-3, reportedly failed due to a separation malfunction after about a minute into its flight, scattering debris into the Yellow Sea.

This is probably the best outcome short of it exploding on the launch pad.

Meant to kick off the 100th anniversary celebrations of the birth of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il-sung, and demonstrate that the impoverished North had achieved his vision of becoming a “strong and prosperous nation,” the rocket’s failure is a monumental embarrassment. Fortunately for the regime, control of the domestic media means that most North Koreans will never be aware of this failure. Rather, they will likely cheer the resounding success of the satellite launch in the name of the Great Leader and his progeny. It makes you wonder why they even bothered to launch a real rocket at all when they could’ve just bought a model rocket kit, launched that, and “reported,” on their latest great achievement. Most North Koreans wouldn’t know the difference so long as the camera angles were right…

However, this abysmal failure is certainly good news for the west. Over the past several years (heightened further over the last several weeks) there have been dire warnings about the emergence of a credible North Korean ballistic missile threat to the American mainland. While there certainly is a threat, it would seem that it is much further off than many may have thought even several hours ago. Failure to make it past the first boost stage should not inspire the fear that Kim Jong-un will shortly be raining down nukes on the west coast. This latest failure demonstrates that North Korea is still a ways off from developing a reliable delivery system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead over great distances.

(Indulge me briefly – What if the rocket’s failure is, in fact, an elaborate – and expensive – ruse, designed to lull us into a false sense of security before they strike!? What if they really have an operational ICBM and this one was an intentional dud!!?? On second thought, this seems unlikely, even for a movie plot – although any word on whether Kim Jong-un is as great a cinephile as his papa?)

More importantly, the failure allows the U.S. some wiggle room in choosing its response. While domestic politics and common sense demand condemnation of this provocative act, the Obama administration would be wise not to go overboard. The administration should seek a tempered response, recognizing that any harsh reaction will likely precipitate further provocative action from the North, such as a third nuclear test and a complete deterioration of relations for the foreseeable future. Such an outcome is undesirable for all parties.

Rather, the Obama administration should, after an appropriate freeze period, and with the consent of our regional allies, pursue further the positive steps made in negotiating the Leap Day Deal. The United States should make it clear to North Korea that it is still willing to dispatch food aid, provided that the North first allow the return of IAEA inspectors to monitor North Korean nuclear facilities and ensure the cessation of all nuclear activities. Such an outcome would be eminently more desirable than a return to the provocative and acrimonious pattern of past relations.

Finally, the U.S. negotiators must avoid further miscommunication with their North Korean counterparts. Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk wrote a great piece on the subject. As he, and others have noted, there are still some discrepancies between the statements regarding the LDD offered by the United States and North Korea. Most notably, the North Korean statement only refers to a moratorium on “uranium enrichment at Yongbyon,” while the moratorium in the American statement applies to “nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment.” As Mr. Lewis says, when dealing with North Korea, “the details matter.” Otherwise you might just leave a loophole big enough to launch a rocket through.

UPDATE: Korean Central News Agency announced that the rocket launch had failed to place a satellite into orbit. Unusual candor from the North Korean state media…

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.