Saturday, April 4, 2009

North Korea launches a rocket

North Korea launched a rocket today, provoking strong reactions from Japan, the US, and China, among others.

There are three reasons why North Korea has launched this rocket: 1) to test it and see if it actually works, 2) to let the rest of the world know that it has this capability, 3) to boost its own sense of honor and pride.

North Korea does not have much going for it. It's poor, backwards, and isolated. Even with troops tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US could still blow it to smithereens, particularly since we would have the help of South Korea. The only problem is that North Korea has nuclear weapons. We're just not sure about how good they are at delivering those weapons, i.e. via missile. That's why this test of a rocket is so scary - if the North Koreans are capable of delivering nuclear missiles hundreds or thousands of miles, they are an even more dangerous threat.

But Kim Jong-Il is not suicidal. If he launched a nuclear missile at Japan, the rest of the world would give the US, South Korea, and Japan carte blanche to wipe him off the map.

So why is he testing this missile? It's insurance. Kim Jong-Il feels threatened by the US and South Korea and Japan, precisely because we can wipe him off the map. He feels like nuclear weapons are his only protection.

But national pride has a role, as well. If North Korea can deliver nuclear weapons on missiles, it can demand a certain degree of respect. That respect comes from fear, but it's respect nonetheless.

The rest of the world has to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, North Korea represents a legitimate threat. On the other hand, the best way to defuse the tension with North Korea is to treat it with respect, but not deference. North Korea wants to be taken seriously. Of course, Kim Jong-Il also wants to stay in power in a system that keeps his country poor and backwards. This situation cannot be sustained forever. At some point, that contradiction - of a leader who wants to be powerful and respected, but keeps his people oppressed and poor - will be resolved. For now, the best thing the rest of the world can do is to keep him contained, without provoking him too much.

Japan demanded a UN resolution. That's a good idea, because it sends a strong signal, but, because it's more rhetorical than substantive, it's not TOO provocative.

Once again, this would be a good time not to panic.

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