On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:
The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.
Most Western observers were left guessing as to what was behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to rush the rocket launch. The South Korean government has the best insight and intelligence into its repressive, secretive neighbor, and sources there are suggesting the North is experiencing a level of unrest not seen in the nation in years. Reuters reported last week,
Kim himself warned of the danger of “rebellious elements” in North Korean society last month and recently met the country’s top law enforcement officials.
“There is a large-scale witch-hunt going on,” a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said.
He spoke with foreign journalists on condition of anonymity due to concerns over rising tensions between the two Koreas over the rocket launch and his comments could not be independently verified, although the South gathers intelligence on North Korea.
Kim has purged much of the top military leadership that he inherited from his father in recent months and often appears in public with armed guards, indicating concerns over unrest, the South Korean official said.
The official said that Kim, believed to turn 30 next year, had ordered modern equipment for his riot police from another country and had also had them trained to handle possible civil disturbances.
“We know that North Korea is sending riot police for training to another country and they are importing a lot of equipment for the riot police,” he said.
He declined to name the country and said that there had been no signs that Seoul could see of unrest in North Korea.
Kim met this week with top North Korean law enforcement officials, according to Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA and the South Korean official said that the message had gone out to prevent the possible spread of dissent.
“They are trying to root out those who are not happy with North Korea,” the South Korean official said.
Considering the news that the satellite attached to the rocket is spinning out of control, it’s increasingly likely that Kim Jong-un pushed ahead with the launch despite major technical difficulties. Could Kim be worried about quelling internal unrest, and thus decided to risk the satellite’s demise in order to test the rocket–which many believe to be the real aim of the launch? Without any reliable intelligence inside North Korea, the best that most experts can do is speculate. This week’s launch and the resulting condemnation follow a familiar pattern that usually ends in international aid.
Lefkowitz suggests an alternative, starting with linking U.S. human rights interests with its security interests. One might hope, especially after this week’s provocation, that the president has learned that adopting another approach has become necessary.