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?