- By Mike GreenMichael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
The original Saturday Night Live cast used to have a skit where Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna saw sexual overtones in everything around her. Finally an exasperated Freud would explain to her, "sometimes a banana is just a banana…Anna."
The punditocracy’s response to North Korea’s launch of the Unha rocket on December 11 shows similar and predictable over-interpretation of Pyongyang’s motives. The "Great General" Kim Jong-un is said to be using the launch to consolidate his control over the Korean People’s Army. Other explanations focus on North Korean efforts to influence the South Korean or even Japanese elections, which are to be held over the next few weeks. Or is it a signal to the Obama administration as it begins a second term?
No doubt missile tests please the KPA generals and make for good propaganda in a nation of undernourished and terrified people, but that is the same reason given for all of the previous missile and nuclear tests by the North. This is, after all, a Stalinist state driven by an "Army First" policy and a perpetual state of war with the United Nations and the Republic of Korea. Explanations that the North is trying to shape the South Korean or Japanese elections also hang awkwardly in the air, since the missile test cannot possibly help the softer-line progressive candidate Moon Jae-in to overcome his conservative rival Park Geun-Hye — let alone the hapless Democratic Party of Japan which is about to be trounced at the polls by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party led by North Kora’s worst nightmare, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Psychoanalyzing North Korea’s deviant behavior is convenient in one sense, however:. it allows the State Department and White House spokesmen to to dismiss the growing threat from Pyongyang as the rantings of a teenage miscreant only doing harm to itself. If North Korea is only isolating itself from the international community, as we are told after each provocation, then there is no need to take action. One analytical explanation making the rounds describes a "cycle" in which North Korea provokes with a nuclear or missile test but inevitably returns to talks. Phew !!
The problem is that the consequences of North Korean weapons testing are not cyclical — they are linear. Each missile and nuclear test, even a failed test, represents a new milestone in Pyongyang’s well-advertised march towards marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles. This most recent test appears to have ended in the successful separation of multiple stage Rockets. Recently, a senior KPA general was reported to have told military officers at a speech in Pyongyang that the nation has already achieved the ability to mount small warheads on medium range missiles. Bravado or not, that is clearly the North’s goal and it grows closer with this most recent test.
The administration’s response should not be based on interpreting the North Korean Unha missile launch as anything other than what it was — a deliberate weapons development program aimed at forcing concessions on the United States and our allies through coercion. That threat requires significant countermeasures both within the UN Security Council and among US allies.