Earlier today, I argued that the United States should take forcible action in response to North Korea’s upcoming satellite launch. There are two additional reasons for doing so, which I did not highlight in my first post.
We have long known that North Korea desires an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. North Korea has been making slow but steady progress towards that goal; though previous long-range missile launches have been failures, they have shown improvements, and the North Koreans have learned from those tests. Striking the new missile prior to launch or shooting it down in flight will deny the North Koreans an opportunity to learn if their missile technology is improving and slow their progress towards an effective ICBM.
Secondly, and more importantly, U.S. military action might sow discord within Pyongyang. The decision to launch a satellite has been partly if not primarily driven by domestic concerns. The late Kim Jong-il had long promised that 2012 would be the year North Korea would become a prosperous country, and large celebrations are expected to mark next month’s centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, new leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea. The New York Times’s Choe Sang-hun writes that Kim Jong-un “must now pull off the national celebrations with appropriate pomp while using them to help consolidate his grip on power.” And as North Korea specialist Koh Yu-hwan told Choe, “Kim Jong-un doesn’t have much to show his people, except launching a satellite.”
If the United States responds militarily to the planned rocket launch, it will demonstrate to those around Kim that he cannot act without fear of consequence as his father could. As I wrote previously, it will help prevent “young Kim from establishing his bona fides as the new strongman in Pyongyang.” And given that the launch will likely result in the withholding of recently promised U.S. food aid, the new leader may face heightened civil discontent as well.
If, in the long term, the United States has an interest in a unified Korea under Seoul’s democratic leadership, then Washington must take steps to weaken Kim now. True, allowing Kim to further consolidate his rule may buy us short-term stability (I use the term loosely). But we’ve been watching that movie for the past few decades and we haven’t been enjoying it. Isn’t it time to change the DVD?