North Korea executed its highly anticipated missile launch and with its failure managed to achieve the second worst outcome imaginable. (The worst would have been hitting China.) The North Koreans have managed in a single stroke to not only defy the UN Security Council, the United States, and even their patron China, but also demonstrate ineptitude.
Publicized in advance, coming at the time of celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation's founding leader and grandfather of newly installed leader Kim Jong-un, it is hard to imagine a greater humiliation. The regime even had the nerve to up the ante by inviting a gaggle of foreign press to visit the launch site and missile command and control center. In the hours after the launch, a number were broadcasting from Pyongyang about the fact that their briefers were missing in action and an eerie silence had descended. Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment.
It would be easy to gloat, but the missile failure has increased the likelihood of some follow-on provocation. Before the launch, it was probable that North Korea would conduct a third nuclear test; now it is a virtual certainty. Having lost face, Kim Jong-un will be under tremendous pressure to double down in an attempt to re-establish international and domestic credibility. Satellite imagery has suggested that preparations for a third nuclear test, possibly based on the country's yet-untested highly enriched uranium program, were already underway.
The UN Security Council will probably become the locus of international indignation over the next week, although there are already reports that the US may not invest much in the effort. It was unlikely that the US and its allies could get much more out of the UN Security Council beyond another slap on the wrist, in part because its hard to find more that the Chinese will agree to sanction. Nonetheless, as we learned in 2009, UNSC expressions of indignation trigger North Korean expressions of indignation.
Such a sequence--missile test, weak UNSC response, nuclear test--has occurred in both 2006 and 2009 as Steph Haggard observed earlier this week. With this fiasco, it seems likely that a third nuclear test will move forward sooner rather than later.
The well-crafted White House statement, delivered by Jay Carney, is reproduced in full below.
White House Statement on the Missile Launch
Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea’s pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.
The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea. However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.
North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea's long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security – and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.
Perhaps constrained by growing access to information, the regime released a brief statement acknowledging that the satellite had failed to enter orbit; the full statement is translated below.
KCNA Statement on the Missile Launch
Pyongyang, April 13 (KCNA) -- The DPRK launched its first application satellite Kwangmyongsong-3 at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 07:38:55 a.m. on Friday.
The earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.
Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure. -0-
* With apologies to Anderson Cooper.