North Korea’s tragic rocket failure

© Chung Sun-jun/Getty Images

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, IISS

The failed launch today of North Korea’s ‘earth observation satellite’ completed a tragedy of Greek epic dimensions for the hermit kingdom’s new young leader, Kim Jung-un. Act One ended on a highly optimistic note on 29 February, with a US–North Korea deal on suspending strategic weapons activity that seemed too good to be true. In Act Two 16 days later, North Korea confirmed that it was indeed too good to be true: the long-range missile test moratorium part of the deal came with an exception in newly inked fine print. Faced with nearly universal calls to desist, North Korea responded with hubris, inviting scores of journalists and experts to observe the launch. Act Three today ended a couple of minutes after lift-off when the Unha-3 rocket began to malfunction and soon fell into the ocean.

Befitting the tragic theme, Kim Jong-un thus incurs all of the negative consequences for having deceived Washington and violated United Nations Security Council mandates without reaping any of the intended benefits. The prospects for détente with the United States that appeared so promising on Leap Day were needlessly discarded. Instead, Pyongyang faces additional penalties. Although China, as usual, will prevent the UN from imposing sanctions on its North Korean ally, there are other ways the US can make Pyongyang pay a price. This does not just mean stopping the food aid that was promised on 29 February. Washington may also look at the kind of financial-sector sanctions that have proven so effective at harming Iran’s economy. Back in 2005, a relatively small sanction that froze $26 million in North Korean bank accounts in the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia over money-laundering charges caused immense anguish in Pyongyang because it squeezed the leadership’s personal slush fund. Read the rest of this entry »


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