North Korean Launch Attempt Stokes Regional Tensions

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean Launch Attempt Stokes Regional Tensions

The rocket didn’t fly far, but tensions throughout Asia are soaring.

After the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, his son Kim Jong-un took up the reins of rule, and many analysts thought it could signal the start of a reversal in the country’s rogue behavior.

After all, the reports said Kim Jong-un had received a Western education at a Swiss school, that he was an outspoken fan of Michael Jordan, and that he adored James Bond films—and he was taking North Korea’s reins at the tender age of 28 or 29. Optimistic Westerners said what little information was available about Kim Jong-un suggested that he might abandon the internal oppression and external belligerency that had marked the rules of his father and grandfather.

For example, a former Western intelligence officer who writes under the pen name James Church said the detail about Jong-un’s studies in Switzerland held great promise about what his leadership priorities may be.

But hopes of a changing North Korea were dashed on April 13, after Kim Jong-un oversaw a rocket launch that violated United Nations Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from developing nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang said the rocket carried an Earth observation satellite, but most believe it was actually a cover for a program to build a delivery system for a nuclear warhead.

The launch was part of a North Korean celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, and was designed to show the world that, despite international isolation, the nation has the ability to make scientific progress. It also demonstrated that, under its new leader, North Korea’s resistance to outside pressure is unchanged.

Some Westerners have been quick to say that since the three-phase Unha-3 missile failed—breaking into pieces and crashing into the sea shortly after takeoff—it means North Korea poses little threat to the world in the near term. But defiance, insecurity and crude nuclear weapons combine to make North Korea one of the least predictable and most dangerous countries on the globe. Some analysts have said that the fact that the rocket failed actually makes North Korea more dangerous. “Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

Alongside the direct threat of a basket-case nation wielding nukes crouches another threat the North presents by acting as a driver of the Asian arms race. More than 5,000 miles away, the U.S. may not feel terribly threatened by Pyongyang, but the same is not true for the rogue nation’s next-door neighbors.

Japan and South Korea were particularly alarmed by the North’s erratic defiance in attempting the launch—both stood by prepared to shoot the rocket down if it flew over their territories. After the launch, South Korea announced that it has deployed new long-range cruise missiles that can hit “any place” in North Korea.

Two days after the launch, Kim Jong-un addressed his impoverished nation and the world for the first time, vowing to continue to make the military his “first, second and third” priority. The nation’s military then promptly unveiled a new long-range missile, and said that since the U.S. had stopped sending it food, North Korea was no longer required to halt its nuclear development. “We have thus become able to take necessary retaliatory measures, free from the agreement,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. “The U.S. will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences.”

In addition to strengthening their conventional weapons power in response to the North’s erraticism, other nations—particularly Japan and South Korea—could use another North Korean nuclear test as a pretense to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. And, just as Lankov anticipated, the North has said it is likely to test another nuclear weapon in the near future.

Stratfor said that if the U.S. responds to the launch negatively, the North could further stoke regional tensions (April 13):

North Korea has also suggested … that a significantly negative U.S. response to the satellite launch will return North Korea to the pattern of behavior seen in 2009-2010, when the North tested a nuclear device and missiles and engaged in a series of military actions against the South in the West Sea (Yellow Sea). Such a path is extremely tense, of course, and would raise concerns of a regional war, even if the North has thus far known its neighbors’ limits and avoided provoking a military response. Instead of achieving a new level of stability, it would raise the potential for miscalculation, delay the cycle of discussions and increase the cost to North Korea’s negotiating partners of a return to the status quo. … [I]f the United States tries to punish North Korea, Pyongyang can once again raise tensions in northeast Asia ….

This is the kind of behavior that sets the North’s neighbors on edge. Meanwhile, China, the nation with the most influence over Pyongyang, says it has no control over the nation’s nuclear program. Beijing continues to disappoint other world powers by failing—or refusing—to apply real pressure on North Korea.

Shortly after the launch, U.S. Sen. John McCain said the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea was like “Groundhog Day … confrontation, followed by negotiations, followed by aid, followed by confrontation.” The senator said it is “remarkable how many times we’ve seen this movie, and meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to make progress on nuclear weapons and now we’re going to hear there’s going to be another nuclear test.”

McCain also pointed out that the U.S. needed to be cautious in its treatment of North Korea because “the Iranians will be paying attention to how we react.” Just days before the launch, Iran defiantly said it has adequate funds to withstand a total embargo on its oil sales for two to three years. How would such a national mentality perceive a U.S. decision to punish North Korea’s defiance with a slight reduction in the food aid it continuously gives Pyongyang?

Militarism is on the rise throughout Asia, and as regional players see that the new Kim is more of the same, the acceleration will continue. At present, many Asian countries’ buildups are designed to protect themselves from North Korea and China, but the intra-Asian tensions will soon be trumped by a collective Asian worry about a common enemy.

Daniel 11:40 speaks of a showdown in this end time between “the king of the north”—a German-led European empire—and “the king of the south,” a radical Middle Eastern empire led by Iran. Daniel 11:40-41 explain that, at the time of the end, this European entity will enter into “the glorious land”—called Israel today—and overthrow many countries. But the amazing military success of this European power will not go unchecked! The pivotal prophecy continues in verse 44, saying that “tidings out of the east and out of the north shall trouble him.” After destroying the Middle Eastern power, the European empire will be troubled by what is happening to its east and north—that is, in Asia!

Asia’s rising tensions point to dark times on the horizon, but the Bible makes plain that the clash between Europe and Asia will be interrupted by the most spectacular event in the history of the universe: the return of Jesus Christ, and the beginning of an age of peace for the democracies of Asia, the maverick nations of Asia, for Europe, and for the whole of mankind. To understand more, read Russia and China in Prophecy.