Sunday’s launch of what Pyongyang called a satellite — but many others around the world saw as a ballistic missile test — is a “triumph for North Korea,” analysts said, because it gives the reclusive state plenty of diplomatic leverage as it pursues its nuclear program and handles the succession of leader Kim Jong Il.
The rocket launch came three years after the North tried to test-fire a missile that exploded seconds after liftoff.
Experts said North Korea demonstrated that its missile technology has advanced and expressed fear that Pyongyang’s next step could involve fitting a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile. If the Taepodong-2 can reach as far as Alaska, it will become a direct threat to the United States.
Asked if Sunday’s launch poses a threat to Japan’s national security, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said close examination of the launch is necessary before reaching any conclusions. But he acknowledged that Pyongyang’s missile technology continues to advance.
“We must continue to update our system to correspond to it,” Hamada said.
Kansai University professor Lee Young Hwa, an expert on North Korea, said the rocket launch could also put Pyongyang in control of the six-party talks, which are aimed at bringing about the North’s denuclearization.
“The chances of North Korea abandoning its nuclear program are down to zero, with the success of Sunday’s launch,” Lee said, predicting that Pyongyang will now move to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
“Then they will seek negotiations with the U.S.,” Lee added.
Such a scenario would render the six-party talks meaningless, with negotiations turning into a bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, or at best a four-way discussion among the North, the U.S., Russia and China — the six-party members with nuclear capabilities — and exclude Japan and South Korea.
“Japan and South Korea will likely become nonfactors in negotiations, at which point resolving the abduction issue (of Japanese nationals) by North Korea will become a minor objective,” Lee said.
Sunday’s launch is also considered to be related to Pyongyang’s leadership succession. Experts said North Korea will likely flaunt the launch as its milestone accomplishment, a feat achieved despite global condemnation.
“The successful launch takes to a completely new stage” North Korea’s relations with the world, Lee said, arguing that it paves the way for ailing Kim Jong Il’s successor to take the helm.
“The succession will become full-scale beginning April 9 (when the North’s parliament convenes) and North Korea will begin its period of transition,” Lee said.
But Atsushi Miyata, a North Korea specialist and author of “North Korea’s People’s Army,” sees the launch in a different light.
According to Miyata, Pyongyang is applying military brinkmanship rather than just using the missile card for diplomatic leverage.
“The launch shows that hardliners are in control of North Korea’s National Defense Commission,” Miyata said, suggesting there is likely an internal split within the regime.
The military was fully aware of the international disapproval but still pushed ahead with the launch, he said.
“Negotiations by the diplomats have come undone, with their efforts wiped out by the military,” Miyata argued, explaining that hardliners are “holding the initiative within North Korea’s government, and dividing the governing body in two.”
Touching on Japan’s response to the rocket launch, the two experts were unanimous in voicing their criticism.
On heightened alert Saturday, the first day of the launch period North Korea had notified to the international community, Tokyo mistakenly declared there had been liftoff at one point, only to quickly retract the announcement.
Miyata said that the Air Defense Command’s misinterpretation of a false radar notification with a U.S. Shared Early Warning missile-firing signal was unavoidable as it was down to human error, but he added that radar performance must be improved.
Kansai University’s Lee said that Japan’s attempt to display the capabilities of its missile defense system was a failure, and that the confusion caused by the false alarm was an embarrassment for the Self-Defense Forces.