Sneider: North Korean missile launch for internal propaganda

Daniel Sneider

Daniel Sneider

UPDATED April 6, 2009

With fresh presidential administrations in the United States and South Korea, both countries are poised to deepen their military and economic ties. But the allies are still dealing with an old problem: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

North Korea launched a rocket Sunday that Washington said was meant to test a long-range missile. Pyongyang insisted it was only intended to place a communications satellite into orbit—in which case, it failed. The rocket flew at least 2,000 miles. It is unclear if it was carrying a satellite.

Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, was part of a group of 10 former government officials and scholars who recently presented recommendations to the Obama administration for revitalizing and expanding the United States’ relationship with South Korea. The “New Beginnings” group was co-sponsored by Shorenstein APARC and the Korea Society, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

Sneider spoke with Stanford Report about the bond between the two countries and the immediate challenges they have dealing with North Korea.

The United States and South Korea say North Korea’s rocket launch was a technical failure. How is Kim Jong-il’s regime spinning this?

The primary audience—in a propaganda sense—for this launch was not the United States and other powers, but the North Korean population itself. The launch was meant to bolster the authority of the regime.

It was also addressed to the South Koreans. There’s still a contest for a claim to leadership of the Korean nation as a whole between the North and South. Given that North Korea is such a failure in almost every other respect, this is their one claim to success—that they supposedly mastered both nuclear weapons technology and the ability to put up an intercontinental ballistic missile and to launch satellites. The fact that they immediately claimed a successful satellite launch when it seems they failed to do so tells you that this had a great deal of importance from an internal propaganda point of view. They needed to tell their own population they had succeeded even when in fact they hadn’t.

Long before Sunday’s rocket launch, there was a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for sanctions meant to prevent North Korea from carrying out ballistic missile tests. What is the status of those sanctions, and what good do they really do?

To a large extent those sanctions were not implemented. But there’s no reason they can’t be. It’s not entirely about rhetoric. The more North Korea faces significant difficulty in engaging in international economic activity—whether it’s to find financing for its trade or importing goods or technology—the more pressure it puts on the regime and the more it undermines support within its own population. I don’t think these things are ineffective, but they’re not going to dramatically alter their behavior. This is a state that thrives on being defiant of international opinion.

There’s a fine balance between taking an event like this seriously from a military and security point of view and not overreacting in a way that really aids their internal propaganda cause.

What implications does the rocket launch have on the already sputtering six-party talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program involving the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia?

I don’t think this changes anything. The administration knew this was coming, and the response has been quite calibrated and careful. They’ve condemned it as a provocative act and gone to the U.N. Security Council. It’s important to reassure our allies in South Korea and Japan that we take it seriously and will respond in a stern manner.

On the other hand, we’re not cutting off routes of diplomatic contact and negotiation with the North Koreans. We’re keeping the door open to continuing the nuclear talks that take place in the six-party framework as well as our own bilateral contacts with North Korea. The Obama administration is not going to rise to the bait of the North Koreans, which is to treat this as some incredible event. It’s better to be calm and somewhat understated. The North Koreans are not 10 feet tall. They’re not 100 feet tall. This is a weak, isolated state in a great deal of difficulty that’s trying to use whatever levers it has to increase its bargaining power and its stature both to its own population and to the world. There’s no need for us to aid them in that effort, and I don’t think the Obama administration is doing that.

Should there be any conditions on bilateral talks with the North?

We don’t recommend there be conditions. We can respond toughly to a satellite launch while still being ready to engage in diplomatic contacts. We have limited leverage with the North Koreans. We can’t credibly threaten the use of force because is raises the danger of a wider war on the Korean peninsula. And we don’t have much economic leverage because it’s such an isolated state. We have to look for whatever little leverage we have and be realistic about what our expectations are.

How does the recent detention of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee play into U.S. relations with North Korea?

This is a somewhat strange and unfortunate case. The Obama administration has been very quiet about it. I suspect there is a quiet effort behind the scenes to negotiate their release. It’s a little hard to deal with the issue of the journalists in that context. The North Koreans use everything—their missile program, their nuclear program—and now this little gift of having these journalists cross over their border. They use everything at their disposal to try and gain bargaining leverage.

The Obama administration has used a fair degree of mature patience, not rising to the bait of provocation. It should simply stay on the line toward pushing the North Koreans toward negotiations over nuclear weapons with the understanding that we may not get immediate results.

The possibility that the North Koreans are going to give up their nuclear weapons in the near future is practically nonexistent. These weapons give them leverage and a tool of intimidation that’s been very useful to them. This is not a strong state that’s acting against us as a threat. This is a weak state that’s using these instruments trying to compensate for its underlying weaknesses.

Kim Jong-il reportedly had a stroke last year, and it is assumed his health is deteriorating. What does that mean for North Korea’s future? What happens when he dies?

North Korea has a collapsed economy and a very serious domestic political crisis. Kim Jong-il hasn’t prepared his own succession. It’s largely a question of which one of his three sons is he going to designate as his successor, and there are issues with those sons. The two older ones are widely considered not to be capable to rule, and the youngest son is 25 years old. They’re desperately looking for time and for legitimacy to be able to deal with succession issues.

I suspect that part of what’s going on with the missile launch and the belligerent attitude the North Koreans have taken during the early Obama administration is a product of internal politics. Hard-line elements are in the ascendancy, and the regime feels it needs to be quite aggressive because they’re actually quite weak.

The United States and South Korea have a free-trade agreement that still needs to be ratified. What is the importance of this pact, especially in light of the global economic crisis?

It’s an agreement that very much opens the markets in both countries to the products of each other. Korea has traditionally had a somewhat protected home market. They’ve followed an economic strategy protecting domestic producers from competition while building them up as global players in the marketplace. But now Korea is at a stage of its economic development where they’ve removed many of those barriers. One objective in this free-trade agreement is to take those last barriers down, like those to U.S. financial service firms and law firms wanting to participate actively in the Korean market and allowing for more foreign investors in Korea.

It’s been a controversial agreement in both countries. In South Korea, it means more foreign competition and a loss of jobs for Korean workers. And there are those in the United States who believe the agreement wasn’t sufficient in creating access, particularly in the automobile market. Koreans sell a lot of automobiles in the U.S., but we sell hardly any cars in Korea.

But the agreement broadens the nature of our relationship beyond security dimensions. It lets the world know we’re allies and partners—not just because we have a history going back to the Korean War, but because we have overlapping and common interests in terms of how the global and regional economy is managed.

Why should the Obama administration be so focused on South Korea right now?

South Korea is by any standard one of the most important allies we have in the world, and President Obama has made that statement very strongly. Many people think of South Korea only in military terms, because that is the legacy of the Korean War. And we still have almost 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea. But our alliance goes beyond simply our military security commitment. South Korea is a major economic player in the world—it’s one of the world’s biggest economies and they have a huge impact on our own fate as a country. They’re our creditors as well as a marketplace for the U.S. There’s also a global dimension to our relationship. As allies, they’ve sent troops to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and they have a role in providing assistance to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. South Korea is a player on many key issues.