A couple of thoughts on North Korea’s recent missile launch:

1. Rather than a sign of the North being up to its old tricks, agreeing with the U.S. one minute, then ‘crazily’ breaking the agreement in order to launch a missile the next, the confusion is likely a sign of factional struggle and lack of clear leadership in Pyongyang. One silo group, more technocratic and concerned with food shortages, pushed for the food aid agreement with the U.S. and got it. Another group, more military and ideological, pushed for the test, regardless of any agreement. This group also got what it wanted. A lack of clear guidance from the top allowed the second group to cancel out the work of the first. A sign of new, confused leadership still trying to navigate (rather than manage or dictate to) the various entrenched factions of NK’s government, not a sign of craziness or some nefarious plot to make the U.S. look bad.

2. Conducting the launch prior to actually receiving any of the food aid may also have been the result of Kim Jong-il’s sudden death causing a delay in negotiations. If the previous leader had intended to sign an aid agreement, as signs pointed to in December, the deal would likely have been sealed at least several weeks prior to the recent one – allowing for at least some aid to arrive prior to the scheduled missile launch.

Frankly, if I were betting, I’d go with the second scenario as the most likely. Kim Jong-il’s death, after the decision to start the negotiating process had already been made, meant no one in the new government had the power to stop it. The death simply caused a delay in the negotiations, making the food aid schedule slip and overlap the missile launch schedule, instead of ending quickly enough to win some initial aid before the launch.

Completely aside from all of this, the real reason for the launch, especially so close to the food aid agreement, may simply be that the North actually thinks it is a normal country, with normal rights to conduct normal satellite launches. The North seeing itself, and acting like, a normal country, and thereby causing the outside world to believe it’s crazy? Hmm …