picks its rocket moment By
The launch on Wednesday
by North Korea of a rocket came five days before
the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death and
early in the government's stated window, which extended to
December 22. The United States' National Security
Council spokesman Tom Vietor reacted by calling
the launch a "highly provocative act that
threatens regional security", while China
reportedly expressed "regret" over the incident.
With South Korea's election on the 19th,
it seems a strange time to stir the pot, given
that the launch would, if anything, hurt the
liberal candidate. It is his policies that will
most benefit Pyongyang. Like everywhere, though,
domestic concerns trump
international ones when it
comes to political calculations.
been an incredibly important year for North Korea.
It has been the 100th anniversary of the birth of
the country's founder, Kim Il-sung. It has also
been the first year of his grandson's rule, with
Kim Jong-il's death coming inauspiciously on the
17th of December, 2011.
Though this casts
a shadow on North Korea's big year, the
meta-slogan was and remains "A Strong and
Prosperous Country". Initially, it was suggested
that 2012 would be the year the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would become
that strong and prosperous country. This got
revised downward to a slightly more plausible:
"2012 will be the year when the doors to becoming
a strong and prosperous country will be thrown
The new leader's first year has
gone fairly well. Whiffs of instability have been
detected, but, as usual, conjecture rules the day.
He is continuing to work to consolidate power and
loyalty in the Korean People's Army.
thing we can be fairly certain of, according to
the Food and Agriculture Organization, is that
North Korea's food production increased 10% this
year, despite the country enduring both drought
and flooding. This is a good sign for Kim
Jong-eun, even though the DPRK still faces a
staple-food shortfall of over 200,000 tonnes and
malnutrition remains a serious problem. A 10% gain
in production is enough to be noticeable by the
citizenry, though is clearly not revolutionary.
Meanwhile, long-rumored reforms to the
agricultural production system that were supposed
to kick in this fall failed to materialize.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the lack of action on
these reforms serves Kim Jong-eun better in the
minds of his people. The last major economic
reform - of the currency in late 2009 - was so
poorly executed and caused such misfortune that a
more restrained, unhurried approach demonstrates a
So North Koreans
know some kind of change is being deliberated, but
in terms of quality of life for most citizens
outside the capital, it is fair to assume that
little has changed in 2012.
more showpieces to inspire wonder in city-dwellers
and country-folk alike. New amusement parks and
flashy dolphinariums spring to mind. These are
pleasant additions to the cityscape, but if one
follows the propaganda arc over the past three
years, it is clear that the leadership ultimately
wants to consolidate its legitimacy by delivering
a better quality of life.
Koreans see significant material changes, however,
the government has to lean on the "strong" part of
"strong and prosperous" for both legitimacy and
inspiration. With the admitted failure of April's
launch, the pressure would have been on to try
again and succeed, both from a propaganda and
south, two candidates are running for president.
The conservative, Park Geun-hye, has promised
something she calls "trustpolitik", an as-yet
unarticulated mode of reciprocal confidence
building. She has gone as far as to say the two
countries should open liaison offices in the
She has also said she
would restart humanitarian aid, decoupled from the
nuclear standoff. However, any coalition of power
she builds will have conservative elements from
whom such generosity will be anathema.
the progressive side is the candidate Moon Jae-in.
He considers himself the torch-bearer for the
"Sunshine Policy" - the liberal policy of high
engagement and investment that defined the early
to mid-2000s. This ended under the current Lee
Myung-bak administration, which took a harder-line
taken on engagement.
As practical and
generous as Park might be (certainly compared to
Lee), Moon can be counted on to provide far more
no-strings aid and investment in the North. This
is no small matter for Pyongyang as it seeks to
boost the economy, maintain social structures and
mitigate its increasing economic dependence on
From Pyongyang's perspective, then,
it is probably unfortunate that the election in
the South just happens to be when it is. They
would certainly have preferred different timing
and if it were up to them the election date would
be different. But they have judged that the
symbolic and military value of a successful launch
- which they were quick to state it was - was
simply too high. Closing out 2012 and marking the
anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death with a bang -
or something close to one - was vital.
Also, for South Korean voters, North Korea
is only one of a basket of concerns. Pyongyang,
probably correctly, has wagered that the missile
test won't be a decisive factor in the minds of
the electorate and won't drive too many moderates
towards Park Geun-hye. Moreover, a significant
majority can probably be counted on to blame Lee
Myung-bak for the launch anyway. His harder line
is generally considered a failure and a big
contributor to strained inter-Korean relations.
In this regard it is actually better that
a launch take place just before the election
rather than afterwards. If Park wins and begins to
shape her "trustpolitik" towards the North, a
rocket test would scupper trust building nearly
immediately. Similarly, if Pyongyang's preferred
candidate, Moon, is elected, a fresh test would
put him under pressure. As it is, it will be two
months before one or the other takes office.
It's an important moment for Kim
Jong-eun's budding leadership. A successful test
can be used to keep his military happy and
confident as well as to inspire his citizens. A
pro-North newspaper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, had
confidently reported that North Korean scientists
had identified and solved within one week the
problem that caused the failure of the April
launch. Yet there were clearly some jitters in the
last few days as North Korea announced the test
might have to be delayed in order to resolve
unspecified issues. That delay didn't happen.
Getting this one right doesn't solve much
for North Korea's citizens, broadly speaking. But
it might help buy Kim Jong-eun some more time to
figure out policies that do solve development
challenges more effectively, should he be so
inclined. We will find out next week whether the
president in the South will be offering sunshine
or "trustpolitik" in that regard.
Andray Abrahamian is a doctoral
candidate at the University of Ulsan, South
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