A few years ago, North Korea was rumored to have sold a small number of Russian SS-N-6 missiles to Iran. While North Korea appears to have developed a modified version that we call the Musudan, Iran seems to have used small engines (vernier engines if you are a rocket nerd) to power the upper stage of its Safir-2 launch vehicle. The Unha appears to use this Iranian innovation as its third stage. It is possible that the flow of talent and expertise has now reversed itself, with Iran helping North Korea. The apprentice has, perhaps, become the master.
Iran, for whatever reason, has yet to launch something that would resemble an Unha. The Iranians have showed off a rocket, called the Simorgh, that appears to use a similar cluster of Nodong-like engines as the first stage. Perhaps Tehran is inhibited by international scrutiny, or has a preference for a different path forward, such as solid-fueled missiles.
Third, all we all going to die? Well, yes -- that along with taxes is a certainty. But probably not from a Taepodong-2.
It is always a challenge to strike the right level of concern about the North Koreans. When not busy making fissile material for nuclear weapons, launching rockets, or kidnapping Japanese citizens, the North Koreans are shelling their South Korean neighbors and sinking their corvettes.
On the other hand, a good deal of those rockets blow up in flight, and the North Koreans can't help but release pictures of their rotund Respected Young General sitting at a computer console, smoking a cigarette. What on earth is going on in these people's heads?
A clue, which a colleague and I have written about elsewhere, might found in a recent five-part North Korean film, The Country I Saw. This is a big-budget production from the state film studio about a Japanese professor of international relations, Aiko Kayama, who teaches in Tokyo. The film is propaganda, as the writer explained to the Chosun Sinbo, depicting "a series of international events surrounding North Korea from an ‘objective point of view' so that our viewers can realize themselves, without any explanation or objectives, that the our nation's path is justifiable."
These events include missile and nuclear tests. The film offers a rather depressing account in which North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are seen as integral to the survival of the North Korean regime. The ideological basis of the state has been replaced with a rationale based on the material measures of power. At one point, Professor Aiko launches into a long explanation of why "the current global politics transcends theories and ideologies and is now based on physical power such as missiles and nuclear." Clearly, John Mearsheimer is popular in Pyongyang.
If you can stomach six hours of North Korean propaganda, maudlin story lines, and bad acting, you might come away with some insight into the DPRK. (Otherwise, my colleague Hanah Rhee has subtitled choice clips.)
The good news is that the film reiterates that North Korea badly wants recognition from the United States, ultimately in the form of normalized relations. The Country I Saw ends triumphantly with a visit by Bill Clinton, touting his April 2009 mission to free two American journalists as a major step forward induced by North Korea's growing military might.
That's also the bad news. The movie could not be clearer that North Korean leaders are hardly likely to bargain away the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that form the paltry basis for the state's legitimacy and security. North Korea's very existence, as expressed in the film, is a function of capabilities like those on display this week. During the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea explored a verifiable end to North Korea's missile programs in exchange for international assistance, including space launches for North Korean satellites. Those efforts look much less likely to bear fruit today.
Despite our long-standing assertion that we will not "accept" a North Korean nuclear capability, that seems to be pretty much where we are today. The good news is that we have some experience with containing a nuclear-armed state that poorly provides for its citizens while spending vast sums to create a garrison state. Of course, North Korea is not the Soviet Union. And Kim Jong Un is not Leonid Brezhnev. But it is easy to look at the Young General, wedged in a tank or smoking a cigarette, and think of Marx's witty comment comparing Louis Napoleon to his more famous uncle: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."