Monday, April 06, 2009

The Missile Fizzles of April

Japanese government officials must have pivately breathed a sigh of relief that North Korean’s rocket launch this past weekend did not require any defensive action by Tokyo. The Taepodong-2 rocket flew over Japan without any part of it falling on the country.

Tokyo had loudly promised that it would shoot down the first stage or any other aberrant debris that might have fallen on the northern tip of Honshu. It moved two destroyers equipped with anti-missile weapons into the Sea of Japan and two batteries of PAC-3 missiles to northern Japan along the projected flight path.

It was always unclear whether these asserts would succeed in downing any rocket flotsom, not just because they are untried, but because the debris would be following an unpredictable trajectory. The failure would have been supremely embarrassing to the Japanese who experienced enough embarrassment from this exercise as it was.

In the event, the first stage fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, a couple hundred kilometers off the coast, while the second, and apparently the third stages too, fell harmlessly in the northern Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang, of course, proclaimed the mission a success, but the U.S. expressed doubts that the North succeeded in its stated goal of putting a satellite in orbit.

This was probably the most over-hyped “crisis” in recent memory. In the two-week buildup preceding the launch, the Japanese media went into a frenzy, with daily stories of the impending launch, endless reproductions of satellite pictures of the launch site in North Korea and speculation about fallout from the missile.

The event was a godsend to both political parties, who must face off against each other in a general election sometime before autumn. For Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose public approval ratings are very low, it was a chance to display crisis management skills, moving missile batteries around the country and dispatching warships.

Unfortunately, his crisis management skills were undercut by a series of hair trigger alert blunders by the Japanese military, known here as the self-defense forces. They sent out two false warnings that a launch had taken place, resulting in emergency messages to the region and municipalities.

For opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, the missile crisis was welcome too as it diverted media attention away from his own public relations problems. For more than a month the press had focused overwhelmingly on the arrest and later indictment of his private secretary for accepting illegal campaign contributions.

The scandal had threatened the scuttle any chance the Democratic Party of Japan had in ousting the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party from power in the upcoming election. The military snafus gave the DJP, for the first time in months, an issue on which the beat the government.

Meanwhile, some pundits in the United States are calling this President Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy test since taking office. No doubt the U.S., Japan and South Korea will feel obliged to do something, having spent so much energy attacking the launch. Tokyo will probably extend sanctions that have been in place since the North’s nuclear bomb test in 2006.

All of this invests much more into this event than it probably deserves, in a way playing into the hands of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. Ridicule rather than handwringing might be the more appropriate response. After all, if the U.S. initial assessment is correct, the test was for North Korea just another in a long line of failures.

In 1998 North Korea fired a multi-stage rocket over northern Japan, which landed in the north Pacific without boosting a satellite in orbit. In 2006 it attempted to send a missile aloft which exploded less than a minute after it took off. This week another rocket test fizzled. So in eleven years North Korea’s ballistic missile program has gone exactly – nowhere.

It should be noted that the same is not true of North Korea’s short and medium-range missiles, which are not only in good working order but present a much more direct threat to South Korea and Japan. Indeed, it is the main justification for Tokyo’s expensive expenditure of money in developing a missile shield.

(Ironically, if North Korea really did hurl a ballistic missile across Japan aimed at Alaska or Hawaii, as some fret about, Japan legally could do nothing to shoot it down, since its American-written constitution prohibits “collective defense” even of supposed allies like the U.S.)

Of course, North Korea’s people are not likely to hear anything about rocket failure. In North Korean mythology, the 1998 missile test was a brilliant success sending a satellite into orbit that beamed praises to Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung back to earth. (audible to nobody but Koreans) and this launch was another brilliant success.

In their view, the newest North Korean satellite is now in orbit broadcasting songs and praises of the Dear Leader. If you don’t believe it, somewhere in Pyongyang there is likely to be a transmitter sending the messages out over the one government radio channel that ordinary North Koreans are allowed to listen to.

In the minds of ordinary people and probably the elite in Pyongyang too, North Korea has become a full-fledged, ballistic-missile-armed nuclear power, virtually the equal to the U.S. and the other great powers. It is a delusion on their part but nevertheless a dangerous delusion.


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