Where is North Korea and Northeast Asia heading? How will North Korea affect China? Who will benefit from North Korea's satellite launch? If North Korea keeps going down this dangerous path, would this lead to war?
These are questions on everyone's mind watching the development of North Korea's satellite launch. However, things are often not what they seem when looking at the situation in the Korean Peninsula. They can appear tense even when the parties involved are optimistic; and when tempers begin to boil, a turning point always emerge for the better. The satellite launch this time around is merely a rerun of the nuclear missile tests during Kim Jong-il's era.
Tension originated from inside North Korea
On Feb. 29, North Korea signed a deal with the United States, agreeing to suspending nuclear missile tests and uranium enrichment and submitting to international monitoring in return for U.S. food aid. New leader Kim Jong-un said that food was more precious than bullets, giving onlookers hope that he was different from his father and would support the opening-up of North Korea.
Then, a 180-degree turn. North Korea announced it would launch a satellite by ballistic missile technology on March 16. Success would mean that North Korea had the capability to deliver long-range ballistic missiles. Japan said it would destroy the rocket if it passed through its airspace. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "seriously concerned" about the launch. The U.S. suspended the agreed-upon 240,000 tons of food aid. China also expressed concerns. However, North Korea insisted that it will launch the satellite as a way to celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung on April 15.
Gaining advantage by manufacturing tension was a special skill of the deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. After singing the deal with the U.S., Kim Jong-un has received support from other countries and people of North Korea. However, others among the top leadership were not happy with the agreement to stop nuclear tests.
Muammar Gaddafi's fall was a lesson. Although he gave up pursuing nuclear weapons, he still ended up dead. So for some, even a temporary suspension in its nuclear program was considered a show of weakness to the West, shaking the foundation of Kim Jong-un's power.
North Korean military leaders were especially unhappy about it. As a militant state, the power of its military is much stronger than that of its Foreign Ministry. Its military leaders may not implement the deal between the Foreign Ministry and the U.S. But North Korea would not display its inner power struggles to the outside world; instead, it takes other actions, such as the satellite launch, to overwhelm the peace deal.
This speculation is based on two reasons. First, Kim Jong-un has not taken office for very long, and the coordination between foreign and domestic affairs has not been as good as in the Kim Jong-il era. Second, despite the appearance of a unified North Korea, many frictions remain inside its leadership.
By launching the satellite, Kim Jong-un could win the support from internal hardliners and solidify his leadership, while losing support from other countries for a certain period. On the other hand, if he gives up, he will be praised by the international community, but lose the support of internal hardliners and become a figurehead without real power.
Who is the beneficiary?
The international community is giving tremendous pressure on North Korea's satellite launch, especially Japan. Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka on March 30 ordered the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to intercept the North Korean rocket launch if necessary. Later on April 9, Japan's Defense Ministry said it had completed deployment of Patriot missiles in order to deal with the launch.
However, North Korea insists on going forward with the launch and invited nearly 80 foreign reporters from around the world to tour the satellite launch site on April 8. This is a very clever move as it both pleases domestic hardliners and gives a seemingly transparent response to the international community. So let's go back to the first question: Where is North Korea heading?
North Korea will keep playing the game utilized since the Kim Jong-il era: "Fight but not break." As long as there is no radical change in North Korea, the situation of Northeast Asia will not get out of hand and Northeast China will be able to continue its stable development.
So who is the beneficiary? In the long term, it is definitely not North Korea because the marginal benefit of this dangerous game will only decrease. China won't be the beneficiary either, because each time North Korea makes trouble, it consumes China's diplomatic resources. As the U.S. shifts its energy back in Asia, it hopes things in North Korea remains stable so that it can focus its energy on containing China.
The real beneficiary in this ordeal is Japan. Since the 1970s, Japan has been trying to empower its military and international influences following its economic development. In foreign affairs, it seeks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In terms of its military, it has the second highest military expenditure in the world. Besides, it has joined the theater missile defense system with the U.S., which has the ability to intercept ballistic missiles from China. The acute response by Japan this time is another excuse for it to strengthen its military forces.
(This article is first published in Chinese and translated by Lu Na.)
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.