If North Korea has nothing to lose with its most recent long-range rocket launch, the regime certainly believes it has nothing to gain by taking heed of international concern. It is provocation writ large, and the big difference this time is that it seems to have worked.

Your average South Korean on the streets of Seoul will be little perturbed. We saw them watch the launch with interest, dismay and resignation, and then turn back to the more pressing concerns of their everyday lives. South Koreans expect North Korea to act like this, and besides which, they can see the bigger picture: these are provocations aimed at the Americans, the Japanese, the wider international community. Not at their fellow Koreans.

Your average North Korean on the streets of Pyongyang will feel vindicated. What is seen by the West as a gross misdirection of resources, is seen by the country’s middle class as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good, for a cause much bigger than them: the moral and technological superiority of the North Korean nation. In a country like North Korea, it is important to remember, the individuals are simply the sum of it all.

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This, says the North Korean propaganda machine, is a weather satellite, which it has every right to launch as part of a peaceful space program. According to this perspective, the rocket’s successful entry into orbit reinforces the greatness of the Kim Jong Eun leadership at an important time: the one-year anniversary of his father’s death and before the completion of 2012, a year Kim Jong-il had promised would announce North Korea’s status as a great and prosperous nation.

North Korea may not be prosperous, but this was always an impossible goal. It is simply too far behind the technologically advanced, globalised South Korea. Rather, it has focused on being “great”, entering the exclusive ranks of countries to have launched a satellite into orbit. Importantly, in this regard at least, they have an edge over South Korea. The English statement put out by the DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it all:

“The successful satellite launch … was a desire at the behest of leader Kim Jong-Il and part of peaceful work in line with the country’s scientific and technological development plan for the economic construction and improvement of people’s living standard.”

So far, the Obama administration has taken a wait-and-see approach, dismissing the country’s capacity to develop advanced ballistic missile technology. The danger appears to have been severely underestimated.

The successful launch is an important sign the North Koreans are making progress along the path to develop a long-range nuclear capability. In so doing, the launch flies in the face of UN Security Council resolutions that ban the country from conducting any launches that could be used to test ballistic missile technology.

North Koreans are hoping this will bolster their negotiating position, particularly with the US. They are prepared to take the risk of yet stricter sanctions; existing sanctions, which include restrictions on financial transactions, trade and an arms embargo, haven’t stopped them from coming this far and there is little indication that they will prevent future progress on the development of nuclear warheads.

The Chinese, as they are have become inclined to do in these situations, simultaneously condemn the launches and call for calm. Negotiation and not confrontation, they have consistently argued, is the way forward. Of course, they would say that: conflict involving their troublesome neighbour is a headache they could do without.

The South Koreans, who are facing a presidential election next week, are likely to come to a similar conclusion. After five years under outgoing president Lee Myung-Bak, who took a harder line against North Korea, with few visible benefits, both candidates have promised to pursue talks with North Korea. While condemning the launches as provocations, neither the conservative candidate Park Geun-hye nor the progressive candidate Moon Jae-in have revised their position. The appetite in South Korea seems to be leaning again towards a more conciliatory approach.

North Korea appears immune to political, economic and diplomatic pressure. And this is something we should all be very concerned about.

The US response has thus far been more of the same: condemning the North Korean regime as irresponsible and calling for yet tougher sanctions and isolation. It is not clear why this approach, which has thus far failed on a number of fronts, will suddenly become successful. No longer can we sit back and hope the problem will somehow solve itself, comforted by the assumption that the isolated engineers in Pyongyang do not have the requisite know-how to progress North Korea along the path to a greater nuclear capability.

Nor is it helpful to look at the country in fear, as unrestrained militants bent on endangering its neighbours and the region (including Australia) simply for the sake of doing so. The North Koreans are playing a dangerous game of brinksmanship, and it is our task to understand where they are coming from and how we can head it off, it at all.

North Korea’s actions have a clear purpose and, while there is no straightforward path to nuclear disarmament, further isolating the regime simply proves to strengthen its domestic legitimacy. And this, after all, is the ruling elite’s most important source of power.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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