TROY - A failed missile test Friday morning that coincided with a major North Korean national holiday was part of Kim Jong Un's continued attempt to consolidate his rule and display his regime's power, according to a Troy University international relations expert.
The test occurred on what would have been the 104th birthday of North Korea's founder (and Kim Jong Un's grandfather) Kim Il Sung, a move designed to show how important the missile program is.
"I did not suspect they would test (Friday) because of the holiday," said Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston, a University lecturer who previously served as Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "They could test any day, but to choose this day, a number of people had to stay up through the night and a lot of people had to work. This disrupted their holiday, and internally that will be read as a signal that the missile development program is very urgent."
The test is also linked to a 70-day "loyalty campaign," which will culminate with the first Worker's party congress since 1980, which Pinkston said will give Kim Jung Un another opportunity to consolidate his power and place his loyalists in positions of power.
"In the lead-up to the party congress, the leadership wants to demonstrate to the public that they're providing public goods, economic growth and prosperity, so there's a campaign for all people in the work units to work harder and achieve great output," Pinkston said. "If you're a security unit or military unit, you're supposed to demonstrate a greater efficiency and output of what you do. (The missile test) is portrayed as the leadership being very profound and having this awesome power. This helps support their position, the consolidation of leadership for the Kim family regime."
Pinkston is a lecturer in international relations at TROY's teaching site at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and the former Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul. Since January, when North Korean officials claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, Pinkston has emerged as a leading voice on issues within the regime, granting interviews to The Guardian and The New Yorker, among other media outlets.
Friday, Pinkston refuted "damaging" claims by Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, who recently said the U.S. should withdraw from Japan and South Korea and that those countries should develop nuclear arms to protect themselves from North Korea.
"In my view some of the rhetoric has been damaging already, because it undermines confidence in the region and U.S. allies are concerned about this," Pinkston said. "Trump does have some valid points regarding burden sharing and what U.S. allies should contribute to the collective defense, but as far as abandoning the alliances or withdrawing from east Asia, I don't think it's credible. It would be extremely costly to the U.S."
Pinkston said spreading nuclear arms is universally regarded as a losing proposition.
"I think it's pretty clear partisanship in Washington D.C. is very harsh these days, but that's one thing people still agree on, that the spread of nuclear weapons around the world would undermine U.S. interests," Pinkston said. "It makes the world more dangerous. Secondly, if South Korea were to acquire nuclear weapons, this is playing right into the hands of North Korea, because it would justify their nuclear weapons program and would undermine the sanctions regime against North Korea. I think the leadership in Pyongyang would love for that to happen, because it would justify their behavior and their actions."
Ultimately, he said, the upcoming U.S. presidential election probably won't change anything within North Korea.
"North Korean policy and rhetoric depicts the U.S. as always being imperialistic. They say the U.S. has tried to take control of the Korean peninsula since the 1830s," Pinkston said. "We hear the same rhetoric whether it's President George W, Bush or President Barack Obama. It makes no difference and they will continue on with their harsh and belligerent policy toward the U.S."