July 06, 2009 12:09
North Korea on Saturday fired seven missiles into the East Sea from a launch site near Wonsan, Kangwon Province. They are said to be of the Scud C variety with a maximum range of 500 km, new Scuds with a range of 1,000 km, and a Rodong missile that can hit targets 1,300 km away. Last Thursday, North Korea fired four KN short-range missiles at a launch site near Hamhung. It has launched 18 missiles so far this year, including the long-range rocket launched on April 5.
Seoul estimates North Korea spent US$700-800 million on these provocations this year, with $300-400 million spent on the nuclear test, $300 million on the long-range rocket launch, $4 million to fire each Scud missile and $10 million to fire each Rodong missile. The South Korean government and the World Food Programme estimate that North Korea suffers from a shortage of a little under 1 million tons of food each year. By last summer's prices on the international markets, it costs around $300 million to buy 1 million tons of food. The money North Korea spent on its nuclear test and missile launches in the first half of this year is enough to cover two years worth of food shortages.
The North was attempting to show off its military might by firing seven missiles on July 4, America's Independence Day. It also fired seven missiles, including a long-range missile, on July 4 2006. Just after being inaugurated early this year, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed dialogue with North Korea, but he recently said he wants to break the previous pattern of rewarding North Korea's provocations, shifting direction in favor of sanctions and pressure. In response, North Korea has embarked on a series of missile tests that demonstrate its ability to hit South Korea and Japan.
Obama warned recently that Washington could implement further sanctions, in addition to those provided in a UN Security Council resolution, while appointing Philip Goldberg as a special envoy handling the U.S. sanctions. Goldberg traveled to China to seek Beijing's support for the UN sanctions and to Malaysia to negotiate the freezing of suspected North Korean accounts there. The standoff between Washington and Pyongyang is expected to continue.
With its latest missile launches, the North showed that it has succeeded in improving them technologically and is able to hit major targets in South Korea accurately. It may now move on to engaging South Korean troops in a skirmish or conducting a third nuclear test, worsening the situation even further. There are rumors that North Korea is in the midst of a power transfer from Kim Jong-il to his third son Jong-un after the North Korean leader fell ill last summer, highlighting mounting uncertainties within the regime. Some rumors say military hawks have surrounded the North Korean leader.
The South Korean government has no choice for now but to focus on international cooperation to stop the North. At the same time, Seoul must be meticulous in gathering intelligence about North Korea, while preparing detailed responses to specific provocations by the communist country. The key is to make accurate predictions and handle the situation calmly.
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