17/12/2012 06:29 GMT | Updated 13/02/2013 05:12 GMT

The North Korean Rocket Launch: Should We Be Worried?

Wednesday 12 December marked the first successful attempt by North Korea to launch a rocket into space. Calling it a triumph for the year old Administration of Kim Jong - Un, North Korean officials such as Kim Ki-nam have stated that the rocket launch was a Satellite and it's launch was an "independent right" that should not be condemned by the international community.

The international community, however, have viewed the launch as something very different to the official North Korean line. Many reports have indicated that the rocket launch is the beginning of the North Korean attempt to create long-range missiles that, if successful, could launch nuclear weapons as far as North America.

The United Nations, the UK and the US have been most vocal in their condemnation of the move by North Korea whilst political commentators have argued that the rocket launch has proven to be the final nail in the coffin for the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty that has served to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons for more than thirty years. Overall, there seems to be a general consensus that a nuclear-armed North Korea, positioned by former President George W Bush along the 'Axis of Evil', is a very worrying prospect for international peace and stability. But is it?

Assuming that the rocket launch that took place is the beginning of attempts to create long - range missile capability, the existence of nuclear weapons in North Korea, whilst certainly unnerving, arguably won't change the status quo of the international system all that much. Looking at the theoretical perspectives, the overarching view is that nuclear weapons has actually reduced the prospect of all out international conflict and has increased stability.


Looking at the layout of the international system since the onset of the Cold War, it is evident that the existence of nuclear weapons introduced a much higher risk for all countries involved and as a result much less outright conflict occurred; the higher the stakes, the less risk a country is willing to take. Instead, states undertook a game of brinkmanship in which countries would seek to push the boundaries and provoke reactions without eliciting all out war.

Looking at the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Russia sought to place nuclear missiles in Cuba despite US condemnation of the move, this game of cat and mouse to achieve small gains is very evident. Both countries threatened nuclear warfare yet arguably had no intention of following through. The result being that both sides conceded significantly and gains were made. Today, this game of brinkmanship as a result of nuclear weapons can be applied to Iran and it's recent negotiations with America. Indeed, Iran arguably seeks to push the boundaries applied to the international system yet, as thinkers such as Barry Posen have argued, has no intention of seeking nuclear war with America and it's allies. Essentially, nuclear weapons act as a negotiating tool.

Look at the history of nuclear weapons and it's no coincidence that no world war has taken place since their creation. As Kenneth Waltz argued in the 1980s, "Nuclear weapons have been the second force working for peace in the post - war world". Whilst during the Cold War, nuclear weapons acted as a shield and a deterrent towards other countries, today they merely serve the purpose of showing other states you mean business in order to prevent attack or invasion. When looking at the North Korean rocket launch from this perspective, then, the perceived attempt to create long-range missiles is unnerving yet not earth shattering.

When looking at the rocket launch from a practical perspective, it's recent success is perhaps even more underwhelming. Indeed, one must not forget that only in April this year the country suffered international embarrassment when it's scheduled rocket launch failed to reach significant heights and fizzled our spectacularly before entering space. One success when blanketed between several failures does not signal an immediate threat to international peace and stability.

Looking at the North Korean economy, the likelihood of a sustained nuclear weapons program is doubtful. Continuously ranked low in international surveys and data, it seems unlikely that the country can afford the $52 billion price tag it took for the United States to maintain nuclear capability in 2008. With a food crisis, economic decline and economic and political isolation, North Korea face many more challenges and obstacles before effective nuclear capability is reached.

So should we be worried about this recent rocket launch and the prospect of North Korean long - range missiles?

Taking the specific issue, I'd argue not for the time being. Yet the US and other members of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty must treat this recent event as a serious wake up call. Attempts at negotiations with both Iran and North Korea have been unsuccessful perhaps indicating that an overtly aggressive stance is not particularly effective. Whilst nuclear weapons remain, countries will try and seek them and perhaps one must look at this from a theoretical perspective rather than a national security threat.

As Scott Sagan has commented, "It seems to me that recent American policy has created a far greater risk of giving states incentives by threatening them so often". Perhaps, we should look at the recent rocket launch more pragmatically and less as if it is the coming Armageddon.