Why North Korea Never Actually Launched That Rocket

Just a few weeks ago, analysts and experts were trumpeting the inevitability of North Korea’s next rocket launch.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) “neared the danger line,” U.S. defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned. Pentagon officials told Fox News a North Korean “missile test could happen anytime,” and a prominent arms analyst proclaimed a launch to be “imminent.”

After all that fuss, the DPRK dismantled the missiles and quietly put them back into warehouses. Whew, that was close … or was it? One expert told us the DPRK mostly uses missiles for intimidation and that the rockets are actually pretty failure-prone.

“As North Korea has learned with its intercontinental range missiles like the Unha 3, launch failures undercut their missile credibility. North Korea heavily tries to use its missiles for strategic intimidation,” Dr. Bruce Bennett, a DPRK weapons expert at the Rand Corporation, told us via email.

The unspoken question lurking in the shadow of North Korea’s imminent April launch seemed to be, “Would it even get off the ground?” Regardless of the answer, the DPRK achieved its main objective of “strategic intimidation,” Bennett said.

The U.S. reacted militarily and politically, Bennett noted. It issued several statements to the DPRK leadership. It flew B-2 bomber sorties and even moved special THAAD missile systems to Guam.

And the intimidation was likely internal as well. The Americans ended their bilateral training with the Republic of Korea (otherwise known as South Korea, North Korea’s nemesis) just days prior to the North taking down those missiles. That move could have set up North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to gloat about avoiding an American invasion.

Of course, actually firing the missiles once those objectives were achieved has a lot of risk attached.

“The North may be reluctant to test a missile that has a reasonable possibility of failure,” Bennett says.

A rocket blowing up on the launch pad certainly would have taken the wind out of North Korea’s threats. Launching the rocket also could have upset its best ally — China.

“North Korea may also be reluctant to test a missile if the test could cause a serious negative reaction from China — Chinese leaders appear to already be seriously unhappy with North Korean bad behaviour,” Bennett says.

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