The curious timing of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket launch, outside of its usual spring-summer launch window, raises questions about the political motivations behind Pyongyang’s attention-grabbing move.
On Wednesday morning, just before 10 a.m. local time, South Korean news agency Yonhap and the Japanese government reported that the rocket had been launched. It came just days after North Korea extended the launch window due to technical issues.
Taking heed of launch and the usual caveats about reading North Korean government behavior, we can discern three motives underlying Pyongyang’s latest move: international bargaining, domestic legitimacy and strategic leverage.
With Barack Obama’s re-election in Washington and Xi Jinping named as the new Chinese President, the region awaits the outcomes of the Japanese election on December 16 and the South Korean presidential poll on December 19. Proliferation-related negotiating activity is on hold, leaving a diplomatic vacuum until the new governments are settled.
External aid fills gaps in the domestic economy and satisfies vital needs such as food and energy that the regime cannot provide for indigenously. The gambit fails if there are no negotiations. While North Korea appears to have no intention of relinquishing its nuclear or missile capabilities, its habitual tactic of engineering crises to leverage aid from the international community in exchange for de-escalation or proliferation freeze agreements is predicated on negotiations actually taking place.
A December rocket launch sends a strong signal from Pyongyang to its regional interlocutors to ensure that North Korea does not get overlooked amid the bureaucratic maelstrom that usually follows changes in government.