Just shy of eight months after a very public and humiliating failure, the successful long-range-missile launch Wednesday by Kim Jong Un’s North Korean ballistic-missile program gave the world a reason to re-evaluate the threat from his rogue nation.
In doing so, he elevated not only his stature among his own people but also the global threat level, and therefore North Korea’s spot on the second-term agenda of President Obama, one already crowded with foreign-policy concerns.
“A highly provocative act” is how National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor described the launch.
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“We will continue to work with our international partners to ensure that the North Korean regime is further isolated, that it is further punished for its flagrant violations of international obligations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The United Nations also condemned the launch, which violated sanctions that the world body had imposed on North Korea for its possession of nuclear weapons. The U.N. Security Council planned to discuss “an appropriate response.”
The successful launch, which caught the world by surprise, occurred Tuesday night. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracked the missile and described its flight: “Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
After several earlier failed attempts, the long-range rocket was successful in sending a satellite into orbit.
While NORAD noted that the missile never posed a threat to North America, those who study North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, agree that its success does just that.
“The world just became a little more dangerous,” said Bruce Bennett, an expert on North Korea and security at the RAND Corp. “American foreign policy toward North Korea had been one of strategic neglect. Those days are over.”
Bennett noted that concern didn’t arise simply from the fact that the missile worked. Kim had very publicly admitted failure after a missile broke apart shortly after takeoff April 13. The failure and the admission were thought to have weakened his support within the North Korean political power structure.
Further signs that Kim was being challenged came from the talk of defectors, and what appeared to be a purge of a number of the nation’s old military leaders. In a poor nation with a history of missile failures, it all looked chaotic.
Last weekend, there were signs that North Koreans had to repair the missile on the launchpad, reinforcing international doubts.
“No one expected them to be able to fix it and be successful so quickly,” Bennett said. “That they did is not good news.”
In Pyongyang, North Koreans clinked beer mugs and danced in the streets Wednesday to celebrate the country’s first satellite in space. In Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, leaders pushed for consequences for Wednesday’s launch, widely seen as a test that takes the country one step closer to being capable of lobbing nuclear bombs over the Pacific.
The surprising, successful launch of a three-stage rocket — similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as California — raises the stakes in the international standoff over North Korea’s expanding atomic arsenal. The next step may be conducting a third nuclear test, experts warn.
Nearly four years ago, the regime set a goal for its people: to “open the gate to becoming a strong and prosperous nation in 2012,” the year North Korea founder Kim Il Sung would have turned 100.
The economy, science and technology were pinpointed as three areas of focus after decades of lagging behind its fast-developing neighbors. Decrepit shops were torn down to make way for cavernous supermarkets stocked with flat-screen TVs and Coca-Cola.
The State Academy of Sciences sent scholars abroad to study the latest agricultural techniques. Kim Jong Il sent HP and Dell computers to the nation’s top universities.
Schoolchildren from Samjiyon in the far north to Kaesong near the border with South Korea began learning about North Korea’s space and nuclear programs.
Students painted satellites on classroom walls, and playgrounds were installed with miniature rockets.
Ellen Kim, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense research center, said the speed of the repairs was a concern.
While it’s clear that North Korea has scientific hurdles to solve before it can threaten the United States with a nuclear missile, the timeline just got shorter, she said.
“They won’t be ready anytime soon, but it’s harder now to say when that is,” Kim said.
Jong Un accomplished what his father, Kim Jong Il, had hoped would be his legacy, just shy of a year since his father’s death.
Cheehyung Kim, a fellow in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Duke University and an expert on North Korea, said the success, even though technically crude, provided Kim Jong Un “with a lot of gravitas” among his people, similar to winning an Olympic gold medal.
Philip Yun, executive director of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation group, and a senior adviser on U.S. foreign policy for North Korea during the Clinton administration, said the real threat from the launch was an overreaction that would lead to more defense spending on unnecessary systems.
“The sky is not falling. We shouldn’t be panicked,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.