Pondering North Korea’s Endgame

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Lee Jae-Won / Reuters

A South Korean man walks past a television report on North Korea's rocket launch, at Seoul railway station in Seoul, Dec. 12, 2012.

Kim Jong-un has launched his North Korean missile, and perhaps a satellite of some kind atop it, skyward and potentially into orbit. The world writhes in rhetorical agony and, surprisingly China, North Korea‘s prime sponsor, expresses “regret” over the deed. How much of this was the young North Korean leader’s idea — or simply a ballistic bone to his restless military, the true power on the northern half of the Korean peninsula — remains unknowable.

All, with the possible exception of the successful missile launch itself (four earlier ones failed) unspools like a holiday pageant, every nation playing its part. “This action is yet another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behavior,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement four hours after the launch. “North Korea will only truly strengthen itself by abiding by international norms, living up to its commitments and international obligations, and working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.”

(MORE: Defiant North Korea Fires Long-Range Rocket)

Perhaps. But it’s only the opening scene, although one that has dragged on for 18 years. Where does it go from here, and, critically, just what kind of endgame does Pyongyang have in mind?

Well, first things first. The successful launch was cheered in Tehran. Every step toward the development of an indigenous missile capability in North Korea is shared with Iran, akin to the circulatory system in Siamese twins. In fact, with Iraq removed from President George W. Bush’s axis of evil, Iran and North Korea remain the two rogue states of greatest concern to Washington. So Wednesday’s launch was good for both nations, making the sanctions currently in place against Iran for its nuclear program more apt than ever.

Development of such a technology is costly. While the financial burden plainly hasn’t deterred North Korea from pressing ahead in its efforts to become the Walmart of Weapons, every won spent on boosters and centrifuges is a won not spent on the country’s 25 million people. North Korea (annual estimated per-capita income: $1,800, 197th among the 228 nations tracked by the CIA, just edging out…Afghanistan) remains bitterly poor. When, or if, its population will overthrow its communist dynasty – talk about an oxymoron – is unknown.

Mating a warhead to a missile and aiming it anywhere remains an immense technological challenge for both North Korea and Iran, even working together. But eventually, given enough time and money, one rogue state or another may be able to build several missiles capable of striking fringes of U.S. territory with poor accuracy and a high likelihood they’ll be duds. Shorter-range missiles will generate instability in northeast Asia.

Then what?

While that possibility is routinely cited as a fear, just what will North Korea or Iran do with it? Launching anything toward the U.S. will risk national suicide, and rogue-state leaders tend more to the Saddam Hussein than the Reverend Jim Jones side of the megalomaniacal spectrum.

Nonetheless, that prospect will energize U.S. missile-defenders, eager to develop and deploy ever more layers in a missile shield designed to render the homeland immune to attack. The North Korean launch – combined with Israel’s recent success of its Iron Dome system in repelling rocket attacks from Gaza – will only spur additional support for more defenses.

But outside the diplo-pundit echo chamber, cooler heads seem to be prevailing.

The Rand Corp. recently threw cold water on the North Korea missile threat. “North Korea is not behaving like a developer and producer of large numbers of relatively sophisticated missile systems. Its lack of a realistic missile test program, in particular, raises significant issues about the quality of its products,” the October report concluded. “There are strong indications that North Korea’s missiles may not pose such a serious threat.”

In Seoul, the Bank of Korea and the country’s Finance Ministry held emergency meetings in the wake of the North Korean missile launch. But investors weren’t concerned. The South Korean won rose to a 15-month high against the dollar despite the news.

MORE: North Korea Launches a Satellite. Why Now?


Two of the assumptions of this article seems flawed.

1) If you can put something into orbit, then by definition you can reach any spot on Earth (today). This is a lot wider than 'fringes of US territory some time in the future' like the article suggests.

2) Also, if you can aim something into a stable orbit of your choice then your accuracy is quite a lot better than indicated. (Caveat; I don't actually know if the orbit is either stable or the one North Korea wanted to achieve but the publicly available information indicates this was the case).

So, basically, North Korea could deliver a package of their choosing in New York or London as soon as their next missile is up and running. The question is, does this require action, or not.


@PNikula It doesn't work like that. A rocket is simply the propulsion mechanism to get a satellite to the required altitude. Once that altitude is reached, the satellite is jettisoned and relies on its own much more advanced propulsion systems to place itself in the desired position. 


North Korea really is a genuine problem.

Their nuclear potential, now apparently including the ability to deliver anywhere in the World, is a great concern especially given their militaristic stance and aspirations towards South Korea as well as their general lack of rational response to important international issues in general

Their intention is probably to begin pressing forward against South Korea and expect that we won't interfere because we are afraid of their new potential nuclear threat to us.

Of course, if that is what they do they will have truly failed to grasp our inevitable response.

We almost certainly will back up South Korea to any degree necessary.

And if they (or anyone else for that matter) were to detonate a nuclear weapon in the US (New York probably) our only possible and virtually immediate response would be to annihilate them.

Of course a much wider nuclear conflict with other nations involved and even World War 3 could possibly result.

The reality is that nuclear weapons and delivery capability are proliferating and unless a truly international process is put into place to limit or stop their spread, it is inevitable that they will eventually spread widely enough where their use is inevitable.

And as it stands, the US, Russia and China will not and apparently cannot cooperate sufficiently among themselves to stop or seriously limit proliferation.

That plus Israel versus the rest of the Middle East make it virtually inevitable that nuclear weapons will be used and from the way things look, sooner rather than later.

Our best hope is that use is limited and does not spread to Global Thermonuclear War.

Don_Bacon 1 Like

@GaryRMcCray MAD has worked in the world for sixty plus years, why doesn't it work now?


@Don_Bacon @GaryRMcCray Because MAD is based on the possibility that there is no chance of survival for either side. With the US creating its own type of "iron dome" to defend against nuclear attack mutually assured destruction is not so mutual anymore. This is the reason that anti-ballistic missiles were largely banned during the Cold War to deter either superpower from releasing their nuclear arsenal upon the world with any hope of protecting their borders. Let's be honest North Korea is a problem but if only 1 out of every 5 rockets makes it into orbit the chance of a ballistic missile strike occurring within the US is even slimmer. Not to mention that there is no way North Korea or Iran would launch a nuke against anyone because as the writer of this piece says "launching anything toward the U.S. will risk national suicide" which is the last thing these guys want.


@A_Wolf @Don_Bacon @GaryRMcCray DPRK only HAS perhaps 3-5 weapons. Also, the original assertion that they have ICBM capabilities is incorrect. The range of this missile could perhaps reach some of Alaska. It is not an ICBM. Nor is it accurate at all. This is just another show conflict to keep the hawks on both sides pounding the war drums. 


Heh, same old Wilsonian Atlanticist bias parroted by TIME. If this had been Belarus or Serbia launching a missile like this, then TIME would be screaming like Chicken Little. But because it's happening in "faraway Asia" then TIME is more content to pooh-pooh and downplay any event, no matter how severe. If North Korea begins practicing nuclear blackmail against South Korea or Japan, then stability in the region could fall apart.

The situation we see today is the culmination of skewed Atlanticist priorities, which have turned a blind eye to rogues like Pakistan and North Korea, which have been cultivated by China as its twin pit bulls. China props up North Korea and Pakistan with weaponry in order to keep regional rivals Japan and India on the back foot. China's leadership needs to get out of their 1950s seige mentality, and become more responsible actors in international community, before international goodwill towards them erodes.


@SanMann Last time I checked Pakistan was an ally. SecDef Panetta just praised Pakistan. 

“We are more encouraged with the fact that they want to take steps to try to limit the terrorist threat within their own country and obviously the threat that goes across the border” to Afghanistan, Mr Panetta told reporters travelling with him to Kuwait.

The last SecDef, Gates, said that NorKor was not a threat which is why it made Korea an accompanied tour. Families! POVs! It's a second Nebraska.

Don_Bacon 1 Like

chutzpah: definition -- Utter nerve; effrontery: example--White House spokesman Tommy Vietor lectured other country on  abiding by international norms, living up to its commitments and international obligations, and working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.


@Don_Bacon ,

Oh no, here's Don Quixote Bacon, the notorious Taliban fan. Despite Don's pretensions to peace, he doesn't understand that leaders of rogue states have made war into their racket, propagating a perpetual state of crisis as a pretext for autocratic rule at home. Don hopes to only keep the spotlight of criticism on civilized countries, while giving rogue states a free pass and immunity to criticism. Poor Don - he just doesn't get it. General Smedley Butler, whose name Don forever likes to take in vain, would certainly not approve.


You're off topic -- Vietor (and I) were addressing the violation of international norms. Does Operation Iraqi Fiasco ring a bell?


@SanMann @Don_Bacon Smed says you don't know what you're talking about and you're wrong. This is considered a provocation, but the fact is that the US has been provoking DPRK for years with its "war games" in violation of the Armistice. . . .

From War Is A Racket:

Then, incidentally, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific. For defense. Uh, huh.

The Pacific is a great big ocean. We have a tremendous coastline on the Pacific. Will the maneuvers be off the coast, two or three hundred miles? Oh, no. The maneuvers will be two thousand, yes, perhaps even thirty-five hundred miles, off the coast.

The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the united States fleet so close to Nippon's shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles.

The ships of our navy, it can be seen, should be specifically limited, by law, to within 200 miles of our coastline. Had that been the law in 1898 the Maine would never have gone to Havana Harbor. She never would have been blown up. There would have been no war with Spain with its attendant loss of life. Two hundred miles is ample, in the opinion of experts, for defense purposes. Our nation cannot start an offensive war if its ships can't go further than 200 miles from the coastline. Planes might be permitted to go as far as 500 miles from the coast for purposes of reconnaissance. And the army should never leave the territorial limits of our nation.


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