North Korea has failed to do in 2012 what the USSR successfully did way back in 1957, when it launched the world’s first artificial satellite. The country’s much-hyped ballistic missile fell apart just minutes after launch, and its debris fell into the sea. So what conclusions can we draw about the international diplomatic standoff sparked by the launch?
A peaceful achievement with military implications
The rift was clear from the very start: one group of countries (or their experts) saw the event as a thinly-veiled ballistic missile test, while another group claimed it was a satellite launch. The debate was actually about war and peace, but the problem is that both are involved in this case.
Pyongyang’s launch of an orbiter was meant as a bit of flag waving by way of military-technological achievement. In many respects, the USSR was engaged in the same thing when it launched its R-7 carrier rocket – the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile – with satellite on board. The clearly audible signal the satellite transmitted from orbit sent a message clearer than any military parade or combat exercise: the U.S. was no longer safe behind its ocean borders.
A successful launch would have at least enabled Pyongyang to pose as a power with the potential to strike America. We say “pose” because there is a difference between putting a satellite in orbit and delivering a nuclear weapon to North America.
For example, you have to deal with the issue of accuracy. Of course, if your bomb is powerful enough, you can more or less disregard precision and drop it within a kilometer or two of any densely populated urban area. But the DPRK is a far cry from Russia, whose strategic missile forces must be able to deliver pinpoint counterstrikes against U.S. silos and command centers in case of a hypothetical war.
There are numerous other problems as well. The simplest satellites are compact and rather lightweight, comparable to the mid-yield nuclear warheads available only to the nuclear superpowers. Pyongyang does not possess these technologies, and won’t for the foreseeable future.
Strictly speaking, it is still unclear whether the DPRK has moved from producing nuclear explosive devices (only officially confirmed by two tests) to producing nuclear warheads for existing carriers. There are numerous doubts that it possesses this capability.
Potentially a trial device capable of exploding at a test site can be of any size or weight. A good illustration is the difference between the world’s first thermonuclear device (Ivy Mike, 1952, U.S.A.), a 62-ton multi-level affair, and the world’s first thermonuclear munition (RDS-6s, 1953, USSR), a bomb that could fit into the bomb bay of a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. But in a missile warhead, everything hinges on a matter of kilograms and centimeters: the ideal device must be pared down to only the absolutely essential, and for that you need the most advanced technologies.
Even supposing the DPRK will soon manage to make a nuclear warhead, it is likely to be a munition for “regional” systems that threaten Seoul and Tokyo more than they do Washington. It will be a long time before the existing North Korean systems are capable of carrying nuclear warheads – and that would be true even if the recent satellite launch had been successful.
A diplomatic game
All this explains the reaction of the world community to the North Korean launch. Everyone made sure to issue the requisite condemnation, but this attitude is a far cry from the parallel process involving Iran. A few days ago it was believed that the North Korean launch and the talks with Iran in Istanbul would take place simultaneously. Pyongyang got out ahead, but this is of no importance. What is important is that all major world media have kept Iran squarely on the front page, while relegating North Korea to the background.
Why? Don’t we have identical stories here? Two countries have been punished by the UN for pursuing nuclear arsenals of their own. Two groups of states with almost the same composition have been engaged for years in a diplomatic game with both countries in a bid to prevent them from gaining nuclear status. But their diplomatic efforts have been largely unsuccessful, to say the least.
And yet, there is a difference in approaches. Take North Korea. Its announced launch was condemned by the United States, Russia, and China, not to mention Japan, above whose territory the most recent DPRK missiles have flown. Everyone reminded North Korea of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 banning ballistic launches. Everyone warned that consequences would follow.
Nevertheless, a meeting of foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan took place over the weekend, and while they issued another stern warning to Pyongyang they failed to go any further. Asked whether Beijing was ready for new resolute steps at the UN Security Council, the Japanese diplomats shook their heads despondently.
Somewhat earlier Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Russia must “calibrate” its response to the launch, meaning to balance what it wants to achieve with the steps it can afford to take.
Pyongyang has been playing a diplomatic game. Instead of pursuing the six-party talks (the two Koreas, the U.S.A., Russia, China, and Japan), the North Koreans are engaged in a dialogue with the United States (last time it was held in Berlin). Pyongyang was following the well-worn routine of attempting to raise the stakes: after all, previous missiles barely reached Alaska, while the impending launch, if successful, would have been a much more threatening. Japan? To be sure, it was scared stiff, but while the previous three missiles overflew the Japanese islands, the present one was directed at a southern area and the Philippines. North Korea’s gesture was subtle and diplomatically elegant.
No matter how hard Pyongyang tries to scare its negotiating partners with its nuclear might, the result is nil. Iran, on the contrary, has achieved all it wanted. Though Pyongyang seems to have made several primitive nuclear devices while Iran has none, this changes nothing in the present line-up.
The world powers are taking different approaches to the two trespassers. We can expect North Korea will be punished across the board (there was a launch after all, even if it failed), but the North Korean nuclear crisis will continue to be addressed through protracted talks. Even if the talks drag on after the U.S. presidential elections in November, a relatively successful outcome is still a possibility. Iran is another matter.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.