On January 30, 2013, South Korea successfully launched its first rocket with significant Russian help. The culmination of the decade long effort was a direct response to North Korea’s unsuccessful intermediate-range rocket testing in 1998. At the time, the progression of North Korean rocket technology alarmed the South Korean government so much so that South Korea took radical steps to hasten the launch of its rocket. Even so, North Korea’s “military first” approach prevailed and the Northern counterpart was able to successfully launch its rocket on December 12, 2013, beating South Korea by about a month.
Even though the successful launch dates differ merely by a month, the South Korean government is facing withering criticism from the press and its constituents for falling so far behind North Korea, a country with GDP that is less a tenth of South Korea. The crux of this claim is that while North Korea developed the rocket entirely on its own, South Korea developed less than half of its rocket with its technology. In fact, South Korea is set to launch a rocket solely employing independent technology in 2021, which is nearly a decade behind North Korea.
The above story tells a chilling account of an arms race that is all too familiar to the international community with Cold War. Although it’s not an arms race per se in the sense that South Korean rocket technology is clearly for peaceful purposes, the competitive aspect nonetheless threatens the already tense relation between the two to spiral out of control.
More importantly, North Korean rocket technology poses a significant threat to global peace not necessarily because of the possible direct delivery of missiles using the rocket technology (the intercontinental ballistic missile developed from North Korean technology can hypothetically strike the U.S. mainland), but because of the risk of ICBM proliferation.
Developing an ICBM is certainly an expensive program to undertake, but the successful proliferation of the ICBM will empower rogue states to put most of the world within its striking distance. Of course, given that even rogue states are rational actors, it is highly unlikely that ICBMs will actually be used against another country for the sake of self-preservation. Yet, the mere capacity of putting states such as the U.S. within its striking distance will imbue the rogue states with powerful new diplomatic leverage.
While there are no truly effective diplomatic responses to the recent developments, the United Nations Security Council and all other relevant stakeholders must keep a watchful eye on North Korean trade routes and its means of covert communication. By focusing on these efforts, the international community may thwart the attempts at the proliferation of the rocket technology, which is an attractive source of income for the revenue starved North Korea.