Following Kim Jong-il's orders, his son and successor Kim Jong-un recently conducted tests of both a long-range missile (under the pretext of launching a communications satellite) and a nuclear weapon. This was useful to consolidate his power within North Korea, whose starving masses have little else to celebrate, but it was also a grave provocation to the international community, even to its principal ally China. So what is the payoff for North Korea? In other words, why be so brave?
Both steps, the launching of a three-stage rocket and North Korea's third nuclear test, had been widely predicted, coming after the sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. But there have been some unexpected developments in North Korea, notably in the behaviour of the new leader, who cried ostentatiously before his father's coffin _ an extraordinary lapse of discipline for the first secretary of the revolutionary Workers' Party of Korea. He has also been seen in public accompanied by his would-be first lady _ which is almost unprecedented in Asia's communist states. Another surprise has been that North Korea has so far declined to follow the Chinese model of economic development, which many commentators had predicted.
Still, in the matter of weapons testing, the pundits have been proved correct: North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket on Dec 13, 2012, on the third attempt, and detonated a nuclear bomb on Feb 12 this year. It seems that Kim Jong-un is continuing the deliberately provocative strategy adopted by his father, but questions remain about what he hopes to gain from such defiance. What signals are the North Koreans trying to send, and what are the implications for South Korea, China, and the US?
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