Tracking Responses to the DPRK’s Planned Missile Launch: Scholars, Propagandists, and Chinese

By | March 20, 2012 | No Comments

Tracking Responses to the DPRK’s Planned Missile Launch: Scholars, Propagandists, and Chinese

by Adam Cathcart

There have been multiple surprises arising out of North Korea’s March 16 announcement that, having agreed on February 29 to a moratorium on nuclear testing and missile launches, the country would be launching a satellite next month from a province abutting the Chinese border.

Words from the Sages |  Not surprising, however, is the fact that Jeffrey Lewis has produced some must-read analysis in an essay entitled “Long Range Missiles of Any Kind”:

I will spare you the back and forth on whether there is any meaningful difference between a missile and a “space launch” vehicle […] The short version is that there is no important difference from a testing standpoint. A moratorium on missile launches that includes an exception for space launches is like a moratorium on nuclear testing that permits “peaceful nuclear explosions” — pointless.

Stephan Haggard brings a rather interesting point of view, specifically that of Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group (in Seoul, and to whose excellent blog we have heretofore inexplicably failed to link) to light:

Dan Pinkston offers up an interpretation of events that is even more cynical than the ones put forward here: that they reached the deal in order to scuttle it. Here is the logic:

  • You reach the agreement, understanding that the US would be upset if you tested;
  • You then announce the test;
  • The US scuttles the deal;
  • You “win” because the sequence of events proves that the US “hostile policy” remains intact…
  • …thus justifying keeping the weapons that you have developed.

Pinkston related exactly this cycle in a paper on the 2009 missile launch. In a forthcoming paper, he will cite more chapter and verse about the long-standing policy of being a kangsŏngdaeguk or strong and prosperous country, which requires having a deterrent.

For a somewhat different take (which includes the wonderful catch-phrase “premeditated backsliding” to sum up the Pinkston hypothesis) Andray Abrahamian weighs in with a meditative essay at 38 North.

The work of Nautilus Institute Director Scott Bruce (who doubles as an analyst at this website) on the issue of DPRK satellite desires has also been exemplary.

There is surely much more commentary out there, but with Lewis, Haggard, Pinkston, Abrahamian, and Bruce as our five sagely guides, we ought to be in good hands.

Subcommittee of the DPRK Alliance of Fiction Writers, Rodong Sinmun, January 20.

Examining North Korea Media Themes | The DPRK media response to the imbroligio has been, as with most things North Korean and propagandistic, multipronged and insistent.  It is not simply that the regime has shrugged its shoulders (“what, us?”).  Instead, the KCNA has done the following:

pushed back against forces advocating launch cancellation (carefully excluding China):

The hostile forces are persistently insisting that the DPRK’s satellite launches are “missile threats” and “provocations” because they consider its dignity, might and scientific progress as a thorn in their flesh.

Explicitly speaking, no one can tolerate the double yardstick and double standards in the issue of satellite manufacture and launch.

The hostile forces are sadly mistaken if they think the DPRK will cancel the already projected satellite launch due to some forces’ accusations over the above-said matter.

Intolerable are the dastardly acts to use the DPRK’s satellite launch for peaceful purposes as a lever for political, military and economic pressure upon it.

explicitly linked the missile with the Kim family legacy, probably the ultimate sign that they have no intention of backing down;

– associated the missile launch with the Kim Jong Un-associated slogan of “Korea does what it is determined to do”;

– couched the launch firmly within the rhetoric of growing prosperity and national power in 2012 (a theme upon which the learned extemporaneities of Daniel Kingston are again useful);

– reminded people that Korea long ago added to the impetus of human progress through experimentation with gunpowder;

–  promoted a new North Korean novel which, in the words of KCNA, is “run through with the idea that the victory in the DPRK-U.S. confrontation was the fruition of [Kim Jong Il’s] unique Songun politics, extraordinary strategy and outstanding leadership art.”

– foreshadowed all of this by issuing this March 15 article (putting the words in a Chinese paper’s mouth, no less):

Kim Jong Un, Peerless Statesman and Strategist: Chinese Paper

Pyongyang, March 15 (KCNA) — The Asia Times, paper of Hong Kong, China on March 7 carried an article titled “Leader Kim Jong Un leads movement for reunification”.

The dear respected Kim Jong Un is successfully carrying forward the revolutionary cause of Juche which was pioneered on Mt. Paektu, the paper said, noting that he will earn fame as a peerless statesman and strategist.

The ultimate neutralization of the U.S. forces in south Korea and their withdrawal from there will be the most brilliant feat of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, it said, and went on:

The U.S. forces in south Korea are creating constant danger of the outbreak of an all-out war in the densely populated central area of Asia.

A nuclear war may break out between the two nuclear weapons states, i.e. the DPRK and the U.S.

Unlike the past Korean War which was limited to the Korean Peninsula, the second Korean War will turn into a thermonuclear war and naturally spill over into the U.S. mainland.

The DPRK’s access to nuclear weapons compelled the U.S. forces to move off from the Demilitarized Zone back to Phyongthaek south of Seoul. But the Korean People’s Army has the capacity to deal a powerful precision strike at new U.S. military base.

Kim Jong Un will skillfully apply carrot and stick to catch a whale with shrimp as a bait.

He will continue reinforcing the army with new missiles capable of mounting precision strike at any strategic target in the southernmost part, while enforcing the Songun politics.

The world-level task force of the Korean People’s Army will before long round off the work of equipping itself with mobile inter-continental ballistic missiles with the whole U.S. mainland in firing range.

The DPRK differs from the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states in that it can blow up or totally disable the U.S. military facilities and large cities and make the U.S. turn back to the Paleolithic Age.

Americans will naturally understand that they will never be safe till they sign a peace agreement with the DPRK.

The day when the DPRK signs the peace agreement with the U.S., the Korean people in the north and the south and abroad and the world people will clearly know that Kim Jong Un is the best leader and the only statesman who would represent and lead reunified Korea.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, 2012

Gauging the Chinese Response | If American officials are privately apoplectic, the Chinese officials and their representatives in the press are quaking up toward familiar levels of what might be called “steadily grumpy.”  (Haggard, among other things, notes the Chinese “squeamishness” about getting embroiled again in North Korean detail at the UN, but the media is less squeamish than grumpy, if adjectives must be traded.)

Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun summoned Ji Jae-ryong, the DPRK Ambassador in Beijing, this past Friday for some stern words (the first time this has happened since 2009, and quite a contrast from all that funerary ring-kissing in the North Korean Embassy) while CCTV reported that North Korean and Chinese officials were meeting again today about the issue.

Vice-Minister Zhang, for the record, has been one of the more balanced voices in the Chinese Foreign Ministry toward both Koreas and has served as a kind of “quiet enforcer” in the past toward the DPRK, a good example being an interview he gave to Xinhua last October to reinforce Beijing’s anti-nuclear stance when Vice-Premier Li Keqiang was in Pyongyang.

As in previous circumstances, it also pays to see what Chinese state media is saying about this issue, both in English and Chinese.

Today’s Huanqiu Shibao (韩媒猜朝鲜卫星升空地点, March 20, p. 8) has a relatively extensive examination based on South Korean reports about the location of the launch, which is anticipated to occur in North Pyong’an province.  Huanqiu notes: “Although this base is quite close to China, it could also be speculation put forward by South Korean media.” If the Chinese readers are supposed to be skeptical, the next nine paragraphs of the article (the rest of it, in other words) go on to cite the same South Korean sources, mainly Donga Ilbo. Reminding readers of the launch’s proximity to China is a minor but telling point.

China Daily (“Satellite launch ‘harmful’,” March 19) quotes Huang Youfu, director of Korean Studies at Nationalities University in Beijing, and Wang Junsheng, at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who pour cold water on the DPRK’s plans.  Everyone was getting along so well just a week ago!  What happened to North Korea’s nod to “a harmonious East Asia,” after all?

Context, as usual is everything.  The Chinese news media had really been stroking North Korea for the food/nukes deal with the United States.  A good example of this line being Gao Haorong’s timely National Defense Times op-ed on March 15 entitled “The US-DPRK ‘Food for Nukes’ Deal Makes Everyone Very Satisfied: Kim Jong Un Gains His First Diplomatic Acheivement” (高浩荣, ”朝美对‘停核换粮’都很满意,” 国防时报/Guofang Shibao, p. 2).

Ponder for a few seconds the juxtaposition of this op-ed of March 15 with the KCNA “Asia Times” dispatch of the same day.  There seems to be a pattern operating: China gives North Korea the opportunity for some face through relatively favorable writing about Kim Jong Un, and then the North Koreans rub it right back by effectively conveying via KCNA that the Chinese are in absolute awe of the successor’s dazzling atomic-strategic acumen, and that China effectively respects the DPRK as a peer nuclear state.

Gao does pause briefly to reflect on the “craft and creativity of Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic moves,” but there is precious little worship in this piece.

A few days later, National Defense Times was putting scare quotes around headers like “North Korea Insists on Its ‘Peaceful’ Use of Space” while reporting on the same page that the Japanese Prime Minister used the opportunity of a speech at a defense university in Japan to assert that Japan might shoot the North Korean missile down, noting also that “China’s lack of military transparency is growing.”  China is rather content, it seems, to lock horns with Japan over all manner of issues, but like their guerrilla predecessors, the current CCP leadership would prefer to pick the time and place of the battles, rather than being thrust into the fray with no warning by the North Korean leadership.   (See 金正恩体制‘卫星式’亮相,  国防时报, March 22, p. 3.)

Probably the best summation of the Chinese angst on the issue exists in the Huanqiu Shibao’s editorial page of Monday, March 19.

“Persuading North Korea is Difficult, Because Persuading South Korea, the U.S., and Japan is Also Difficult [鲜难,因为劝韩美日也],” Huanqiu Shibao, March 19, 2012, p. 14.  (The following is a direct translation of the Chinese version, with underlined prose signifying phrases which did not appear in the official English-language version in the Global Times.)

Pyongyang announced its plan to  it will launch a satellite next month. South Korea, Japan and the US all replied with condemnation, and China summoned North Korea’s ambassador to China to state concerns. From the looks of it, the Korean Peninsula is again entering a new round of tense nerves.

Every time when North Korea acts “recklessly,” China is rather embarrassed. [Original English rendering: “China appears to be put in an awkward position every time Pyongyang makes a surprise move.”] On the one hand, China wants to uphold  equitable relations on the Korean Peninsula, and oppose absolutely all disturbances. But at the same time, China has to maintain Sino-North Korean friendship, and not blindly allow the South Korea, the US, and Japan to stand for containing Pyongyang.  China has to maintain a middle road between these two. 

From external appearances, North Korea’s nuclear ability and missile seems to have increased.  Despite daunting external pressure, North Korea has gained a larger space for researching and developing strategic weapons, and it seems that North Korea’s strategic striking power is more and more powerful and cannot be overcome.

Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are together hoping China exert more pressure on North Korea, because they thought that in containing North Korea, China can act as a tool to eventually bring Pyongyang to its knees, expecting this [outcome] very soon.

The point, hopefully, is clear enough: The Chinese version of the article is far more certain about North Korea’s determination to undertake the test, and far more skeptical of South Korean, American, and Japanese intentions in North Korea than its English counterpart.  It is also more forthcoming about how the DPRK has a tendency to put egg (or rather rocket fuel) on the face of the leaders in Beijing. Read the rest of the English version of the Global Times editorial here.

No Comments

  1. haha, since when did Asia Times become a Chinese paper? It is run by some Americans based in Thailand.

    By the way, the author of that very same article quoted by the KCNA is Kim Myong-chol. Hailing from Japan, Mr. Kim is one of Asia Times’ resident comedians.

  2. North Korea has also not missed a trick on the United Front side of things with the “if they can do it then why the hell can’t we” + “look at those south Chosun muppets/puppets with their “total” overseas assistance and they still fucked it up twice” approach by pointing to the Naro launches, something guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of pro-North factions everywhere….

    Wouldn’t want to miss that.

  3. Chris, thanks much for the caveat and the link. You modestly failed to mention your own extensive essay on the issue, which is worth reading carefully. I especially enjoyed this passage:

    We must start by clearing away some pervasive misconceptions. The biggest of these is that the timing of the launch announcement somehow shows fissures developing in the ruling elite. The fact is that there is nothing whatsoever in the way the news was released that lends weight to this thesis, which looks very much like yet another victory for hope over expectation.

  4. For another perspective by Chris Green on the Global Times op-ed, see:

  5. You flatter me, Adam. That DNK report served as little more than a heads up for readers left feeling unbalanced by a steady diet of State Department daily briefings.

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