North Korea picks its rocket moment

The launch on Wednesday by North Korea of a rocket came five days before the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death and early in the government’s stated window, which extended to December 22. The United States’ National Security Council spokesman Tom Vietor reacted by calling the launch a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security”, while China reportedly expressed “regret” over the incident.

With South Korea’s election on the 19th, it seems a strange time to stir the pot, given that the launch would, if anything, hurt the liberal candidate. It is his policies that will most benefit Pyongyang. Like everywhere, though, domestic concerns trump

international ones when it comes to political calculations.

This has been an incredibly important year for North Korea. It has been the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung. It has also been the first year of his grandson’s rule, with Kim Jong-il’s death coming inauspiciously on the 17th of December, 2011.

Though this casts a shadow on North Korea’s big year, the meta-slogan was and remains “A Strong and Prosperous Country”. Initially, it was suggested that 2012 would be the year the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would become that strong and prosperous country. This got revised downward to a slightly more plausible: “2012 will be the year when the doors to becoming a strong and prosperous country will be thrown open”.

The new leader’s first year has gone fairly well. Whiffs of instability have been detected, but, as usual, conjecture rules the day. He is continuing to work to consolidate power and loyalty in the Korean People’s Army.

One thing we can be fairly certain of, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, is that North Korea’s food production increased 10% this year, despite the country enduring both drought and flooding. This is a good sign for Kim Jong-eun, even though the DPRK still faces a staple-food shortfall of over 200,000 tonnes and malnutrition remains a serious problem. A 10% gain in production is enough to be noticeable by the citizenry, though is clearly not revolutionary.

Meanwhile, long-rumored reforms to the agricultural production system that were supposed to kick in this fall failed to materialize. Perhaps counterintuitively, the lack of action on these reforms serves Kim Jong-eun better in the minds of his people. The last major economic reform – of the currency in late 2009 – was so poorly executed and caused such misfortune that a more restrained, unhurried approach demonstrates a welcome cautiousness.

So North Koreans know some kind of change is being deliberated, but in terms of quality of life for most citizens outside the capital, it is fair to assume that little has changed in 2012.

Pyongyang has more showpieces to inspire wonder in city-dwellers and country-folk alike. New amusement parks and flashy dolphinariums spring to mind. These are pleasant additions to the cityscape, but if one follows the propaganda arc over the past three years, it is clear that the leadership ultimately wants to consolidate its legitimacy by delivering a better quality of life.

Until North Koreans see significant material changes, however, the government has to lean on the “strong” part of “strong and prosperous” for both legitimacy and inspiration. With the admitted failure of April’s launch, the pressure would have been on to try again and succeed, both from a propaganda and military imperative.

Meanwhile, down south, two candidates are running for president. The conservative, Park Geun-hye, has promised something she calls “trustpolitik”, an as-yet unarticulated mode of reciprocal confidence building. She has gone as far as to say the two countries should open liaison offices in the other’s capitals.

She has also said she would restart humanitarian aid, decoupled from the nuclear standoff. However, any coalition of power she builds will have conservative elements from whom such generosity will be anathema.

On the progressive side is the candidate Moon Jae-in. He considers himself the torch-bearer for the “Sunshine Policy” – the liberal policy of high engagement and investment that defined the early to mid-2000s. This ended under the current Lee Myung-bak administration, which took a harder-line taken on engagement.

As practical and generous as Park might be (certainly compared to Lee), Moon can be counted on to provide far more no-strings aid and investment in the North. This is no small matter for Pyongyang as it seeks to boost the economy, maintain social structures and mitigate its increasing economic dependence on China.

From Pyongyang’s perspective, then, it is probably unfortunate that the election in the South just happens to be when it is. They would certainly have preferred different timing and if it were up to them the election date would be different. But they have judged that the symbolic and military value of a successful launch – which they were quick to state it was – was simply too high. Closing out 2012 and marking the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death with a bang – or something close to one – was vital.

Also, for South Korean voters, North Korea is only one of a basket of concerns. Pyongyang, probably correctly, has wagered that the missile test won’t be a decisive factor in the minds of the electorate and won’t drive too many moderates towards Park Geun-hye. Moreover, a significant majority can probably be counted on to blame Lee Myung-bak for the launch anyway. His harder line is generally considered a failure and a big contributor to strained inter-Korean relations.

In this regard it is actually better that a launch take place just before the election rather than afterwards. If Park wins and begins to shape her “trustpolitik” towards the North, a rocket test would scupper trust building nearly immediately. Similarly, if Pyongyang’s preferred candidate, Moon, is elected, a fresh test would put him under pressure. As it is, it will be two months before one or the other takes office.

It’s an important moment for Kim Jong-eun’s budding leadership. A successful test can be used to keep his military happy and confident as well as to inspire his citizens. A pro-North newspaper in Japan, Choson Sinbo, had confidently reported that North Korean scientists had identified and solved within one week the problem that caused the failure of the April launch. Yet there were clearly some jitters in the last few days as North Korea announced the test might have to be delayed in order to resolve unspecified issues. That delay didn’t happen.

Getting this one right doesn’t solve much for North Korea’s citizens, broadly speaking. But it might help buy Kim Jong-eun some more time to figure out policies that do solve development challenges more effectively, should he be so inclined. We will find out next week whether the president in the South will be offering sunshine or “trustpolitik” in that regard.