Blowup

Behind North Korea’s Fizzled Missile: Has China Lost Control of Kim?

Kim Jong Un has shown that he doesn’t care what Washington and Beijing say, and he may have made himself an even bigger threat to these great powers.

A North Korean missile exploded seconds after blast-off early Sunday morning, and the failed test may make North Korean leader Kim Jong Un even more dangerous than he was before.

The launch of what looks like a short- or intermediate-range missile was meant to be an exclamation mark for the massive celebrations in Pyongyang Saturday to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state.

The two-hour-long military parade at the heart of those celebrations featured what appeared to have been three intercontinental ballistic missiles.

One of those ICBMs, as such missiles are called, was previously unknown to analysts. It was hidden from view, carried in a canister on a mobile launcher. If the missile indeed exists—some believe the canister could have been empty—it clearly has a long range. According to Shin In-kyun of the Korea Defense Network, it could travel at least 3,700 miles.

Others, however, think it can go much further. The canister resembles the one used for China’s DF-31 missile, which can travel at least 5,000 miles downrange. If this one has a similar capability, then if launched from North Korea, it could reach some of the lower 48 American states.

Yet Americans might laugh at this latest threat from the Kimster. The quick end to Sunday’s test undercuts the fearsome image of his ballistic missiles. “The timing was a deep embarrassment for the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un,” the New York Times wrote Saturday, referring to the explosion soon after the launch.

That is not, in fact, good news. What does a deeply embarrassed dictator do next? He tests another missile or detonates a nuclear device to end his country’s celebrations on what he considers a high note. Kim has plenty of missiles, and his technicians look like they have buried, in preparation for a detonation, a nuke at the Punggye-ri site in northeastern North Korea.

Or maybe he does something else provocative.

Kim may have to do something we consider horrible if he wants to remain in power. His rule looks increasingly unstable—since the end of January there have been various incidents suggesting trouble at the top of the regime—so a humiliating episode like the almost-immediate failure of the missile Sunday could tip him over the edge.

There’s nothing more dangerous than a weak dictator who commands the world’s most destructive weapons. Friday, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security issued a report stating that Kim may have had up to 30 nukes at the end of 2016 and the industrial infrastructure to build more at a fast clip.

And Kim also looks defiant. Washington has been issuing warnings to the North Korean leader in the days leading up to the “Day of the Sun” celebration Saturday, and so has Beijing. The missile test suggests, among other things, that Kim feels he can ignore the stern Chinese lectures delivered through various means, including the Global Times. The nationalist tabloid, controlled by People’s Daily, this week threatened restricting the flow of oil to Kim, among other measures.

If Kim in fact thinks he can safely defy Beijing, Kim may at this point be, as a practical matter, uncontrollable.

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In any event, the next move is up to an insecure, defiant, embarrassed, and uncontrollable Mr. Kim. And he is unlikely to enhance peace and stability in what could be the world’s most volatile region.