North Korea Test-Fires Missiles

A South Korean news agency is reporting that North Korea has test-fired two short-range missiles from an east coast launch pad. Video by AP
Gordon Flake
Executive Director, Mansfield Foundation
Tuesday, May 26, 2009; 2:00 PM

North Korea reportedly fired two more short-range missiles into waters off its east coast Tuesday, undeterred by the strong international condemnation that followed its detonation of a nuclear device and test-firing of three missiles a day earlier.

Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a nonprofit which seeks to increase awareness about the nations and peoples of Asia, was online Tuesday, May 26, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the negative response from the U.S., China and Russia and the U.N. Security Council.


Gordon Flake: Hi, Gordon Flake here from the Mansfield Foundation to talk about the North Korean nuclear test and the world reaction to that test.


Fairfax, Va.: I keep hearing that the test may be intended for an internal audience and be related to a succession struggle gaining urgency because of Kim Jong-Il's failing health. Can you explain in a nutshell: who is proving what to whom with this test?

Gordon Flake: Since Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke last Fall there is considerable uncertainty within North Korea. Everyone is thinking about a power transition but in that Society, few can openly discuss it. In such an environment, every individual, party member, and institution has cause to prove them selves to be strong and loyal to the state and too Kim Jong Il. The strength of the regime demonstrated by the test also provides a better environment for potential announcements about transition plans.


Fairfax, Va.: In the Post story there's a quote from N. Korea's state-fun news agency saying, "Our army and people are fully ready for battle . . . against any reckless U.S. attempt for a pre-emptive attack." Should we consider this a direct threat?

Gordon Flake: Such language by the North Koreans is very common. In fact they have said far worse. Such bravura is in part an attempt to shore up domestic support within North Korea and in part a manifestation of very real fears on North Korea's part.


Washington, D.C.: Why isn't diplomacy working?

Gordon Flake: It takes two to tango. North Korea is at present all consumed by their own domestic considerations, and given the climate I described in response to an earlier question on domestic determinents of North Korean actions, it is difficult to imagine anyone in North Korea being capable of proposing any level of compromise....compromise which is at the very heart of diplomacy. At present, our diplomatic efforts are rightly focused on coordinating our response and our policies with our allies and other partners in the region.


Washington, D.C.: With all the international outcry against the testing, how is North Korea reacting and can they be stopped without provoking something more major?

Gordon Flake: North Korea will almost certainly respond to the ongoing effort in the UN Security Council (to censure the DPRK for its nuclear test and likely pass a new sanctions resolution)with further bombast and threats. Pyongyang has framed the nuclear test itself as a response to the statement released by the UN Security Council condemning North Korea's long-range missile test just over a month ago. While there is an escalatory nature to this process that warrants concern, at the same time, as North Korea becomes increasingly defiant, it is also pushing its primary patrons, China and Russia, into closer collaboration with the United States, Japan, and South Korea. This will be a difficult problem to solve in the best of circumstances, but having a relatively well coordinated approach with the rest of the region does put us in a far stronger position from which to respond to North Korean actions.


Arlington, Va.: What's the word from the U.N. Security Council? What will/can they do to deter further testing?

Gordon Flake: The UN Security Council was swift and unanimous in condemning North Korea yesterday and today they are meeting to consider further steps that they might take. Since the North Korean nuclear test is a clear violation of a standing UN Security Council Resolution (1718) which followed North Korea's previous nuclear test in October of 2006, it is very likely that the Council will issue a new resolution and seek to levy further sanctions on North Korea. The key will be actually enforcing both the new and existing sanctions.


Philadelphia, Pa.: After the internal succession problems are resolved, what do you as they hope for the future of North Korean leadership? Shouldn't they look at the difficulty in even providing enough food and resources to their people and decide it has come time to spend more on basic necessities and less on missiles?

Gordon Flake: I would certainly hope that a post-Kim Jong Il regime would focus more on food and less on weapons of mass destruction, but I fear that such change will only come with a fundamental transformation in the "nature" of the regime, not just in a change in the man at the top. This is a regime that relies on three pillars to maintain its power; 1) Control over the movement of people, 2) control over the means of production, 3) control over the flow of information. The opening and "normal" nation status that we have to offer them fundamentally threatens their control over their people and thus regime stability. The problem is in essence the nature of the regime itself and that is part of what makes issues like this nuclear test so intractable.


Orion, Mich.: Why would new sanctions work any better than current sanctions?

Gordon Flake: There is no guarantee that new sanctions will work, but as long as we have close and meaningful coordination among our allies and other partners in the region (China and Russia) they have a far better chance of changing the security/economic calculus for North Korea.


New York, N.Y.: What is the reaction of the Chinese government to these recent tests? North Korea may be an ally, but isn't there some nervousness whenever any neighbor suddenly develops nuclear weapons capabilities?

Gordon Flake: The Chinese reaction has been historic. China has a longstanding mantra about non-interference in other countries "domestic" affairs--born largely out of their desire to avoid international criticism of their own domestic problems. However, in 2006 China and Russia both voted (twice) to impose sanction on North Korea. Just over a month ago, in the face of a unified position from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, both Beijing and Moscow signed on to very toughly worded UN Security Council Statement condemning North Korea's missile launch. These actions mark the departure point for the current Chinese response which is likely be stronger still. China clearly doesn't want a nuclear North Korea, but they also do not want instability in the region and there actions are often determined by the tension between those two objectives.


Dallas, Tex.: What would be the outcome if the U.S. and its Allies took swift military action to deter/halt North Korea?

Gordon Flake: Unfortunately, there are no good military options on the table. North Korea has 70% of its forces forward deployed with 100 kilometers of the DMZ and with 15 long-range artillery tubes and hundreds of missiles all within range of Seoul, they essentially hold the South Korea capitol--with its population of 15 million people including nearly 100 thousand American citizens---hostage. There is no question about the outcome of any military contingency on the Korean Peninsula, but the costs of victory are inconceivably high.


Cameron, N.C.: What if N. Korea gave a nuclear test and nobody cared? It's kind of like the brat in the grocery store looking for attention.

Gordon Flake: In general, I tend to agree with the approach you seem to be suggesting....often called benign neglect....or perhaps in the case of North Korea benign neglect. However, there is always the risk that ignoring North Korea will just dive them to even more provocative behavior. In this particular case, however, I don't view the North Korean nuclear test as a cry for attention or as a call for negotiations. I think the DPRK has clearly decided to go down the nuclear path and the test is a manifestation of that decision, primarily timed to demonstrate the strength of the regime during a time of domestic uncertainty. They challenge for us will be to work closely with our allies and other partners in the region to convince North Korea that a nuclear program actually undermines, rather then guarantees, the stability and security of the regime.


Evanston, Ill.: When Kim Jong Il dies who will take over?

Gordon Flake: I can say with some confidence that the next President of North Korea will be the deceased "eternal" President Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Il has ruled under his fathers mantle and whoever his successor might be will likely rule under the same mantle. At present it seems most likely that Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Chang Song Taek, would serve as a caretaker ruler while, Kim's third son Kim John Un (who is in his early 20s) is groomed for power.


Valleyview, Alberta, Canada: Would Iran come to stand behind North Korea should North Korea choose to commit to a war theme in response to any further sanctions?

Gordon Flake: While Iran and North Korea are the two surviving members of the "Axis of Evil" proclaimed by President Bush in 2002, and while there appears to be significant cooperation between Iran and North Korea on missiles and possibly on nuclear technology, there is no formal alliance between these two nations and given the challenges each face in their own regions it is unlikely that either would come to support of the other militarily.


Gordon Flake: Thank you for the excellent questions. With a country as opaque as North Korea, the only prediction in which we can have told confidence is that they will back in the news again before long.


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