April 06, 2012 12:28
Despite efforts by the international community to dissuade North Korea from launching what it claims is a space rocket, Pyongyang appears to be pushing ahead with the launch scheduled for the middle of this month. The North claims it wants to put a satellite into orbit for scientific research, which was the will of late leader Kim Jong-il to mark the centenary of nation founder Kim Il-sung.
Pyongyang claims it informed the U.S. of the rocket launch when it agreed with Washington on Feb. 29 to halt its uranium enrichment activities in return for food aid.
That suggests the missile launch was meticulously planned for some time and is not the result of conflict and confusion within the North's leadership after Kim Jong-il's death. But the launch will end up doing North Korea more harm than good, further isolating it from the international community and exacerbating its economic woes.
The launch is likely to serve a military purpose, namely to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental U.S., but it also has political and diplomatic objectives. First, North Korea intends to demonstrate by launching the rocket that the transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his third son Jong-un is progressing smoothly. Second, it wants to close ranks by resisting international demands. Third, it could be trying to create obstacles to exact more concessions from other participating nations in the six-party nuclear talks. It may also be accelerating its nuclear weapons program. The North conducted its first nuclear test just three months after launching the Taepodong-2 missile in 2006 and conducted another nuclear test a month after launching what it claimed was a space rocket in 2009.
While North Korea prepares for its next launch, the other countries in the six-party talks have their hands tied because they are in the process of electing new leaders. Russia held the presidential election in March, and President-elect Vladimir Putin has yet to be inaugurated. China faces a shift in its leadership this year and is not in a position to revise its existing policy toward North Korea. Japan has seen several leaders come and go over the last six years, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took office only recently, has his plate full with domestic problems. South Korea and the U.S. also face presidential elections this year and are not in any position to focus on North Korean problems.
North Korea is taking full advantage of these fallow periods and is resorting to a carrot-and-stick method in dealing with the international community. On the one hand it is demonstrating a willingness to resume the stalled six-party talks and promising to freeze its uranium enrichment program and re-admit IAEA inspectors. But it is also pushing ahead with its long-range missile launch and challenging the international community. Such a two-pronged approach puts the other countries in the six-party talks in a tough position and poses political dilemmas for Seoul and Washington.
China is displeased with the North's nuclear weapons and missile development programs, but it does not want North Korea to implode or clash militarily with South Korea. As a result, it will express concern about the rocket launch but oppose further sanctions and try to resume the six-party talks.
If the U.S. halts the food aid, North Korea will refuse to freeze its uranium enrichment program, keep IAEA inspectors out and blame Washington for it. The scrapping of the Feb. 29 agreement would fail to halt North Korea's missile launch and let Pyongyang continue its uranium enrichment program. North Korea will not get food aid, but it will succeed in gaining face.
That may be why the North believes the missile launch would lead to more benefits than losses. But it will lose more than just 240,000 tons of food aid from the U.S. In future, it will find it harder to gain economic cooperation from other countries, and this will only raise its dependence on China. North Korea is causing China a tremendous political and diplomatic burden with the missile launch, and its nuclear weapons and missiles could also be threats to China. Beijing may support Pyongyang now, but that could change any time.
The latest problem has also increased global attention to and concerns about North Korea's weapons of mass destruction. The Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which North Korea criticized, originally had no plans to discuss the North's nuclear weapons and missiles. But Pyongyang's announcement ended up putting that issue right at the top of the agenda. By dashing the hopes of the international community and choosing to isolate itself further, Kim Jong-un is only increasing pressure on the stability of his regime.
By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo
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