PYONGYANG – A “brilliant victory” and “thrilling” success, North Korea’s grinning leader crowed of his country’s first test of a long-range ballistic missile. The “final phase” in a confrontation with America, Kim Jong Un called it. Part of a coming stream of “‘gift packages’ to the Yankees” in the form of more weapons tests.
You can feel the self-satisfied, self-aggrandizing bliss as North Korean state media revels in what it clearly sees as a historic moment – and a golden chance to boost the dictator and his military.
In some respects, the accomplishment this week is as big a deal as the breathless descriptions. But, as ever with North Korea, there are some important reasons to be skeptical.
People in the North Korean countryside still go without food. It’s still a third-world economy, with massive corruption and rampant human rights abuses. It is hated, feared, mocked and sanctioned by its neighbors. And several years of development and tests still lie ahead before its intercontinental ballistic missile – the North calls the nascent version it test-fired on Tuesday the Hwasong-14 – will actually work.
Yet despite all of this, after decades of single-minded determination, a tiny, impoverished country stands on the threshold of completing a long-coveted goal that only the United States, Russia and a handful of others have accomplished: building nuclear-armed ICBMs.
A look at North Korea’s delighted propaganda, and what it might mean:
THE PROPAGANDA: “Respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” with a “broad smile on his face,” urged his scientists to continue to “frequently send big and small ‘gift packages’ to the Yankees as ever so that they would not feel weary.”
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: Pyongyang, with this part boast, part threat, is likely promising more missile and nuclear tests.
It’s a show of defiance, sure – such tests are banned by the U.N. – but it also reveals something important, and less flattering, about the North: More tests signal weakness.
Before it can actually back up its bluster, it needs repeated tests to build a single ICBM that can reach North America, let alone an arsenal of them.
Same goes for nuclear bombs.
Some analysts believe North Korea can arm its short-range missiles with nuclear warheads already. But there’s more doubt about whether Pyongyang can build a warhead that can fit on a long-range missile.
Each new test puts the North closer to its goal. But it also signals that it is not there yet.
THE PROPAGANDA: North Korea said that it had scored a “brilliant victory” and “great success” by launching an ICBM that can carry a “large-sized” nuclear warhead. Kim praised his scientists for “thrillingly succeeding at one try in even the test-launch of Hwasong-14 capable of striking the U.S. mainland this time.” The weapon’s guidance, stability, structural and “active-flight stages” systems were all “confirmed.”
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: The North did succeed, in a way, by getting the missile to fly in a highly lofted arc and splash down in the Sea of Japan. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo all confirmed this as the North’s best effort to date.
It’s also true that if not stopped, North Korea appears only a matter of years away from building a working ICBM.
But there are big reasons to doubt North Korea’s claim of complete success “at one try.”
These include whether the North has mastered the technology for a re-entry vehicle crucial for returning a warhead to the atmosphere from space so it can hit its intended target. And whether North Korea can build a warhead small enough to fit on a long-range missile.
THE PROPAGANDA: Kim “stressed that the protracted showdown with the U.S. imperialists has reached its final phase, and it is the time for the (North) to demonstrate its mettle to the U.S.”
WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN: This sounds like a threat, and North Korea has, without doubt, been demonstrating its mettle for years, ignoring repeated U.S. warnings not to test nukes and missiles and threatening to strike targets in the United States.
Such propaganda helps domestically by boosting Kim Jong Un as a titan bestriding the world stage. It also causes fear in America, South Korea and Japan.
“Final phase” may also be a way of trying to keep North Korea’s elites from getting complacent as the nuclear standoff nears 30 years.
There’s a glimmer of truth in the phrase, too.
If the goal has always been a nuclear-armed ICBM, then the first smooth test of a nascent version of that weapon could indeed mark a “final phase” of sorts.
What’s less certain is whether this phase will end with violence, some sort of negotiated nuclear freeze of simply more years of frustration and North Korean weapons progress.