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North Korea's Missile Test: Off-Target?

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
April 6, 2009


North Korea's launch of a multi-stage rocket has been assessed by international experts as a technical failure, but the test has been at least a partial success in hitting four political targets: North Korea's domestic audience, exploitation of international divisions among members of the six party talks, testing of the newly-established Obama administration, and exploitation of Chinese dilemmas over how to balance multiple conflicting objectives in its North Korea policy.

Target #1: The "Song of General Kim Jong Il" Plays in North Korea

The North Korean Taep'odong-2 rocket launch has occurred days prior to the April 9th convocation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly (SPA). This follows prior precedent since North Korea's 1998 Taep'odong-1 test was timed just prior to an SPA meeting and Kim Jong Il's consolidation of control over the state, party, and military institutions.

The Korean Central News Agency reported that the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite, "a shining product of self-reliance, was smoothly and accurately put into its orbit." Rumors from external media may eventually challenge North Korea's official narrative, but the message to the people of North Korea--following doubts raised by rumors of Kim's illness--is that Kim Jong Il's power remains intact, unthreatened, and unchallengeable.

Target #2: Exploiting Divisions At the UN Security Council

A secondary but equally important target of North Korea's Taep'odong launch has been the exploitation of divisions within the international community over how to respond to North Korea's provocation. Although the UN Security Council quickly convened on a Sunday afternoon within hours of the North Korean launch, there is no easy consensus among the United States, Japan, China, and Russia on whether or how North Korea should be punished for what it claimed was a peaceful satellite launch, but which utilized the same technology that North Korea had used in the 2006 failed test that was condemned by UN Security Council resolution 1695.

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