North Korea Missile Test Failed

The authoritarian state is weak and dysfunctional, but Obama's policy is making it more dangerous

by John Glaser, April 12, 2012

North Korea attempted to launch a long-range rocket on Friday, but it instead malfunctioned and broke apart before even escaping Earth’s atmosphere.

“This was supposed to be associated with (Kim Jong Un’s) ascension to power. So for this thing to fail … is incredibly embarrassing,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs for the U.S. National Security Council and now a Georgetown University professor.

The very public failure of this attempted display of military strength is indicative of two things. First, North Korea isn’t nearly the threat that Washington and the media try to make it out to be. And second, U.S. policy has failed to change the status quo in the authoritarian state.

Successive presidential administrations in Washington, along with a sensational media, have tried to paint North Korea as presenting some serious threat to the U.S. While it has nuclear weapons, it is ultimately a dysfunctional nation with a dilapidated military infrastructure, as this latest failed test illustrates.

The Obama administration has taken the approach of his predecessors in isolating North Korea diplomatically and sanctioning it economically. But more of this kind of engagement will not induce North Korea to become less belligerent.

“A policy of not engaging Pyongyang,” writes former CIA officer Paul Pillar, “was tried for several years under the previous administration, without success in preventing North Korea’s first nuclear tests.”

“Wise statesmen learn to abandon obsolete or unworkable policies,” writes Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “President Richard Nixon did so with his opening to China in 1972, and President Bill Clinton did so with his normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s. The results have been clearly positive in both cases” and Obama “needs to show the same judgment and courage by making a sustained effort at the highest level to establish something at least resembling a normal relationship with Pyongyang.”

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