Rogue Regimes

The Ominous Meaning of North Korea’s Missile Launches

Thursday’s salvo comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated.

On March 31, North Korea fired artillery about 100 shells across the United Nations-drawn Northern Limit Line into South Korean waters. South Korea immediately fired some 300 shells back into North Korean water. The exchange took place in the Yellow Sea, what the Koreans call the West Sea. The South scrambled F-15 fighter jets.South Korean citizens living on the nearby islands of Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong took shelter.

North Korea does not recognize the Northern Limit Line that separates claims to the body of water. There are often provocations in the area in the spring as crabbing season begins. North Korean fishermen often go south of the Line to harvest crabs, and that has sparked deadly incidents in the past between the navies of the two Koreas.

In November 2010, North Korean shells killed two South Korean civilians and two marines on Yeonpyeong Island.

In March 2013, Seoul and Washington reached an agreement on a plan to respond to limited North Korean attacks on South Korea, such as shellings. The March 31 incident was not so serious as to invoke American participation in a retaliatory response, but the plan was designed for, among other things, artillery attacks on South Korea’s islands in the West Sea area.

The live fire occurred during a time of increasing tension on the Korean peninsula, especially a serious of North Korean rocket and missile salvos that began in February. So far, Pyongyang’s acts have not been as serious as last year’s, but the North in the last month has been upping the pressure on the South and more provocations are expected. This year, the regime of Kim Jong Un looks less stable than last year, with factional infighting more intense than it has been in decades.

One result of the internal discord is that Beijing has lost substantial influence in the North Korean capital. That means, among other things, the Chinese have even less ability to shape events and incidents can quickly escalate.

On February 28, North Korea fired four short-range missiles into the East Sea, better known as the Sea of Japan. The salvo followed the test of another four missiles on Friday, February 21.

The North periodically launches Scuds, like the ones on Thursday, and sometimes these events have geopolitical meaning. These two sets of firings bracket Monday’s start of the annual U.S.-South Korea “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” military drills, which the North Koreans abhor, and so they might be warnings to Washington and Seoul.

Whether they were or not, almost nobody was alarmed, even though the test appeared to violate Security Council resolutions. The Pentagon did not think the launches were provocative as the North has never promised to refrain from firing Scuds with such short ranges. Seoul, which wants to engage Pyongyang, deliberately played down matters. And as Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings told CNN, “I’m not persuaded it’s a big deal or even a medium big deal.”

Whatever kind a deal it is, the story is not that the missiles went up, splashed down, and disturbed fish. The story is about the coherence of the regime of Kim Jong Un, the third of his family to rule the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Most analysts think the DPRK, as the Kims call their state, is now relatively stable. The storyline is that the youngish ruler has, with the dramatic execution of uncle Jang Song Thaek in December, solidified his rule.

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The minority view is that Pyongyang remains a dangerous place these days, with young Kim forced to purge and either imprison or execute enemies in a nationwide life-and-death struggle for many—and maybe even for Kim himself.

Yet whether or not the regime is in distress, it has almost certainly slipped beyond the control of China, its only formal military ally. At one time, Beijing and Pyongyang were on the best of terms. Both Kim Il Sung, who founded the DPRK, and Mao Zedong, who ruled the People’s Republic in its first years, were Communist, Confucian, and chubby. As a result, they got along well. Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, however, found it hard to work with his Chinese counterparts and avoided them whenever possible.

Kim Jong Un, who took over on the death of his father in December 2011, has had even less contact with his Beijing benefactors. Dealing with China was Jang Song Thaek’s job, and as noted Korea watcher Bruce Bechtol points out, Kim decided to risk his ties to Beijing by getting rid of Jang, perceived to be a mortal threat to his rule. So he not only threw Jang to the dogs—figuratively—he has also systemically attempted to eliminate Jang’s allies. In eliminating Jang’s allies, he has, as far as we can tell, done away with most every civilian who has had significant contact with China.

At the moment, young Kim is trying to rebuild his China contacts, sending an envoy, Kim Ki Sok, to Beijing this month looking for Chinese money. The mission was unsuccessful as he returned home “empty-handed.” The Chinese for their part sent two Foreign Ministry delegations to Pyongyang in recent weeks, with the result of these efforts unknown at this time. Yet the missile launches on Thursday, coming so close after the second delegation left Pyongyang, is not a good sign.

It appears that neither China nor North Korea quite knows how to deal with the other, which means, among other things, that Beijing has little ability to influence events on the Korean peninsula. So, if the North Koreans raise the temperature by following up their missile launches with another series of provocative actions, as they are capable of doing, the Chinese will have little means to rein their comrades back in.

The Korean peninsula, because of the existence of the Kim regime, is always dangerous territory, but perhaps it is more so now. On Wednesday, the official Korean Central News Agency carried Kim Jong Un’s comments on factional infighting among elements of the ruling elite. That is an almost unprecedented admission of discord. And when there is discord in the regime, it can lash out. That unfortunately means that the routine missile launches could be followed by events of far greater impact.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.