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Take a Deep Breath Over North Korea's Rocket Launch

By William Pesek
December 12, 2012 11:15 AM EST

There are two ways to view North Korea's launch of a rocket using ballistic missile technology.

The first is the John Bolton approach: It's a highly provocative act that violates United Nations resolutions, jeopardizes regional security and proves that Kim Jong Un is every bit as unhinged as his late father Kim Jong Il was before his death in December 2011. In the mind of Bolton, George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador and a prominent North Korea hawk, the world became an immeasurably more dangerous place in the last 24 hours.

The second view, and the one I'd recommend, is to take a deep breath, relax and think things through for a moment. Yes, it's true this apparently successful launch brings Pyongyang closer to its goal of building intercontinental weapons. Yes, it could complicate things for U.S. officials desperate to keep such technology away from the Irans of the world. And yes, it thickens the plot for next week's Japanese and South Korean elections.

But this milestone also may give Kim the breathing room he needs to alter North Korea's dismal trajectory. Remember that the only surprise here is the timing. This week, North Korea pundits were buzzing about how design glitches would delay the launch and embarrass Kim. Not quite.

An alternative view is that Kim did what he had to do to consolidate power enough to try a different tack from his father. Educated in Switzerland and steeped in a world view that sees the Cold War as ancient history, Kim the younger could be a very different leader. He seems far more open to new ideas, more welcoming of the foreign media and unafraid to be more accessible and less god-like to the masses than his predecessors. It could be an elaborate head fake, of course. Or it could be a sign that North Korea is now in more thoughtful hands. That includes a willingness to ignore China's preferences. China did not want this launch.

Kim must know that in the age of GPS technology and rigid sanctions, exporting weapons and counterfeit $100 bills is becoming more difficult by the day. A new way is needed, a more international way involving development aid, a more open economy and a less belligerent world view. This could be Kim's way of building the street credibility he needs in Pyongyang so he can get to work on moving North Korea forward.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

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