The successful launch of a North Korean rocket Wednesday has been condemned by the international community and caused anxiety over the pariah state’s intentions. But leading expert Rüdiger Frank, who also studied in Pyongyang, has a different view.
Q: What was the aim of this launch?
A: Mainly domestic. Kim Jong Un has been in power for almost a year, and there was a failed launch in April he had to make up for. He had to demonstrate that he can be a successful modernizer and the rocket can be seen as a great achievement. It will make North Koreans believe he can make more progress, such as in the economic situation, but signals to the military that military issues will not drop out of sight. He has pleased a broad range of domestic opinion.
Q: The regime claims this is about space exploration – do you take that seriously?
A: I believe it is a priority but not the only one. North Korea does have a mobile phone network and is heavily oriented toward modern communication technology. Having a communication satellite is a key component – no other country would send a North Korean satellite into space so they have to rely on their own technology.
Q: What will it cost them?
A: That is the biggest problem. The government admits they have serious problems feeding the population – as well as providing heating, electricity and everything else. It’s highly questionable to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in this program, and it also renders all efforts at securing humanitarian aid very difficult.
Q: What does it tell us about the new Kim Jong Un regime?
A: He continued his father’s program. Kim Jong Il launched the first rocket in 1998 but it failed, so Kim Jong Un has accomplished something his father always wanted. It’s a massive cause for celebration that solidifies the rule of Kim Jong Un. Traditionally after such a bold event conciliatory moves happen and I believe there will be an economic reform proposal reaching out to South Korea.
Q: What are the implications for foreign relations?
A: If you’re in a corner there is nowhere else to go anyway, so its not such a big issue. It improves their standing with China, which is not happy because it shows some independence although the economy is heavily dependent on China. South Korea is not affected because it’s the conventional military threat from North Korea that matters. The US has no choice but to condemn it, which makes co-operation more difficult.