The North Korean Crisis: Musudan Missile Test a Potential Face-Saver for Kim Jong-un?

18 Apr, 2013    ·   3885

Aakriti Bhutoria on the significance of the nuclear missile test on the dictatorial tactics of Kim Jong-un

As the world continues to grapple to find ways of responding to North Korea’s threat-mongering, the DPRK is fast losing out on credible provocations short of an apocalypse. Already seen as ‘a boy who cried wolf’, North Korea is being pushed into a corner as none of the countries which matter- the US, South Korea and Japan are taking the former’s war threats seriously this time around. For example, none of the countries evacuated their nationals from the peninsula following Kim Jong-un warning them to consider doing so. Both camps are at loggerheads, with the US and South Korea making demands for denuclearization and North Korea making demands for recognition as a nuclear state, as the bases for any negotiations.

Considering such a situation, this commentary seeks to analyse whether a potential third missile test (widely speculated to be scheduled sometime soon) represents a last-resort face-saving tactic from North Korea?

Nukes for 'Prestige' 
The recent provocations from Kim Jong-un, experts such as Leonid Petrov suggest,  are part of a domestic “political chess-match” and represent a concerted effort to exalt his image as a powerful ruler who can stand up to the arch-enemies of the nation. Even though Kim Jong-un is dictator of a largely suppressive and authoritarian regime, it would be wrong to dismiss factors of domestic pressure or fears of coup playing an important role in his decision-making. Indeed, Petrov points out that there have been potent rumours of assassination plots circulating within the unhappy military since last November. The recent missile and nuclear testing and the subsequent aggressive rhetoric were more directed at the domestic rather than the international audience. As a political new-comer, Kim Jong-un aims to establish his credentials in the vein of his father and grandfather and Petrov argues that this “near-war like situation...will help him overcome his real and imaginary rivals in the succession process”.

In commissioning the recent missile and nuclear device tests, Kim Jong-un gambled upon adverse reactions from the US and its neighbours with the belief that he could force them into negotiating on his own terms. He had expected to be wooed and re-engaged with by the US, which would have exalted his image and prestige within the military and internationally. As Bruce Killinger points out, in the past, North Korean leaders used to issue threats and allow the US some time to respond, “preferably by offering benefits to buy its way back to the status quo ante”.  However, this time in his enthusiasm and excessive adventurism, the North Korean ruler has gone overboard with the rhetoric, threatening to attack South Korea and the US with nuclear weapons.

On their part, there was no question for the US to relent to North Korean pressure and beg the latter to negotiate because of the bitter experiences of the past. In a series of aggressive statements and warnings, aimed at getting its adversaries to soften their stance, remove the sanctions and come to the negotiating table, North Korean provocations have surpassed the realm of the ‘convincing’. Indeed, for Kim Jong-un, it has come down to a question of salvaging credibility domestically and regionally, for as Robert E. Kelly points out, he has ‘painted’ himself into a corner where he must follow up on his tough talk with some action. 

Having thrown himself into this pit, Kim is failing to do anything that would lead the US and South Korea to take him as seriously as he would like them to. He understands the repercussions of aggressive action and wants to avoid such a situation at all costs. In such a climate and with time running out quickly, the US and South Korea have won leverage over Pyongyang as the latter is fast losing face because of its empty threats. The former have called off his bait and are now biding their time for Kim to mellow down and initiate some sort of dialogue over aid and sanctions. The US and South Korea are thus not engaging in any inflaming rhetoric knowing that it is just a matter of time. For example, the US refrained from deploying additional missile defence as had been scheduled initially in order to avoid giving credence to Kim’s war threats. Kim is being forced to find a way out of the present crisis by de-escalating considerably from the original threat and opting for a face-saver in the form of a third missile test.

As insiders in the American camp opine, opting for a missile test may be the only way Kim Jong-un can honourably withdraw from the crisis, after all the rhetoric of annihilating South Korea and hitting the US hard. An American official confirmed this view by putting it thus, “That (the Musudan missile launch) might give Kim Jong-un some sort of off-ramp...You could say, ‘I have stood up to the United States; I launched a missile.”

While it is certain that the US and South Korea would talk tough and impose more sanctions on Pyongyang in the event of a third test, they would also be a little relieved with the ending of the immediate tensions. Meanwhile, there are signs that Kim is trying to deviate attention from the crises domestically, by holding festive events and celebrations and hoping, perhaps that he did not make too much of a blunder.