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North Korea continues to defy the world

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 13, 2009

    True to its planned schedule, North Korea defied warnings from the international community on 5 April 2009, launching a rocket capable of reaching Alaska and Hawaii. As was expected, it stirred a chorus of worldwide criticism. Yet, the emergency meeting of the United National Security Council convened for the specific purpose of debating the North Korean issue remained deadlocked. China armed with veto power remained inflexible in its position and called for “calm and restraint” from the international community in an effort to “safeguard peace and stability of the region”. China, however, made it clear that it is committed to a “constructive role” in future talks. The Chinese move sent tremors through the communist states’ neighbours.

    It is believed that North Korea spent about $30 million to launch the rocket and yet, needs foreign aid to prevent a famine. In 2006, Pyongyang tested an atomic weapon even while people were deprived of warmth in winter. Thousands of hungry and desperate North Koreans flee to China every year so that they have something at least to eat. China for its own geopolitical considerations continues to prop up the iron-fisted Kim regime by providing food and fuel so that North Korea does not collapse. China does not want a unified Korea, particularly with US troops positioned on its border. China did cut off aid briefly once in 2006 as protest over North Korea’s weapon advances that upset stability in Asia but is unlikely to do the same this time. South Korea would also not rejoice if the Kim regime collapses. The fear of the estimated cost of absorbing the North’s 23 million poor will be too high for its own economy and therefore Seoul has zig-zagged between acting tough and boosting the North’s economy, mainly with food aid.

    Such a stance by China and South Korea has meant that President Obama faces critical choices: how to accommodate South Korea in his policy frame as it is an official ally, and how to keep China engaged as an unofficial ally at least to keep the option of keeping the dialogue open with Pyongyang. While China may be wary of destabilizing the Kim regime for fear of possible political and economic consequences, Pyongyang’s authoritarian regime remains intact with freedom to pursue its own agenda. Seoul’s newly elected conservative government may not hesitate in reining Pyongyang by itself becoming a member of the 74-nation Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). It may be recalled the PSI was set up by the US in 2003 to prevent North Korea from shipping or gaining weapons and missiles by intercepting ships suspected of carrying such materials. However, if the South Korean Navy dares intercept North Korean ships it might escalate into a conflict and might even precipitate a full-scale war.

    In view of Kim’s poor health and with none of his sons ready to take over, the military’s role seems to be decisive. Under the circumstances, Obama may use his China card at least for now to prevent Pyongyang from selling weapons know-how to Iran, Syria, and others. Any further downward slide of North Korea economically will lead to serious consequences for stability in Asia.

    North Korea claims that the recently fired 3-stage Taepodong-2 missile was used to put a communications satellite into orbit. In fact, in 2006, North Korea tried unsuccessfully to lunch a Taepodong-2 missile, with Iran’s help. This time too though North Korea succeeded claims to have placed the satellite in orbit, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command claimed that the payload landed in the Pacific Ocean. It said: “Stage one of the missiles fell into the Sea of Japan. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean. No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan”.

    The reaction from Japan was understandably strong. Japan joined the international community condemning the launch. Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura announced that Japan would extend sanctions against the North that were due to expire on 13 April for another year and deferred additional measures pending UN Security Council decision. He said: “It is a violation of United Nations Resolutions 1695 and 1718, and it is extremely regrettable.” The missile launch has put the Japanese diplomatic and security community on high alert. The Japanese government had put the SDF ready to intercept the rocket if it were to come down on Japanese soil or in Japanese territorial waters.

    Surprisingly enough, even within Japan there is no unanimity in policy towards North Korea amongst major political parties. A Lower House resolution to protest Pyongyang’s rocket launch was not supported by two of the five opposition parties. While the Japanese Communist Party voted against the resolution proposed by the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc, the Social Democratic Party abstained from voting. The Democratic Party of Japan joined the ruling bloc in its condemnation. While the Upper House controlled by the DPJ is likely to adopt a similar resolution, the Peoples’ New Party and SDP are likely to submit new resolution.

    President Obama called the launch a “provocative act” that violated UN regulations and urged North Korea to abandon its development of weapons of mass destruction if it wanted to gain the acceptance of the international community. For a while, obama seemed to have scored some diplomatic victories through a slew of global summits in major world capitals, until the challenge from Pyongyang not listed in his agenda played spoilsport. However, in order not to displease Beijing and accommodate it in the international system, Obama willy-nilly had to toe Beijing’s approach in handling Pyongyang through the channel of negotiation. Chaibong Hahm, a Northeast Asia expert at Rand Corporation was harsh in his criticism of Obama when he said that by agreeing to negotiate, Obama was siding with China and rewarding North Korea for its bad behaviour, while ignoring the concern of allies like Japan and South Korea.

    While the UN Security Council’s inability to take tough action against North Korea demonstrated a serious flaw in the international organization, it provided legitimacy to Pyongyang’s own agenda that keeps peace in North East Asia in a perpetual state of fragility. North Korea has threatened to exit from the now stalled Six-Party talks if any move is made to apply new UN sanctions. There is no unanimity amongst the P-5 members to adopt a common stand over possible sanctions. China has only proposed issuing a non-binding statement, indicating that pushing Pyongyang too far would yield negative consequences. The US understandably has refrained from taking a strong position on Beijing’s stance for the obvious reason that China is the largest holder of US Treasury debt. Washington’s apparent backpedaled and toeing the Beijing line threatens to leave Japan isolated.

    Both Iran and North Korea have declared that they are unlikely to abandon their nuclear development programs. Pyongyang has even cited a spat with the US over verification of dismantling its nuclear facilities in refusing to return to Six-Party talks. Iran is in its own standoff with the international community over its refusal to abandon a program that could lead to development of nuclear weapons. The Bush administration relied too much on the Six-Party talks to arrive at an accord with Pyongyang, but it collapsed owing to the latter’s intransigence. Obama’s effort to take the same route also seems unlikely to succeed. Like North Korea, Iran too is subjected to various UN resolutions and sanctions over its nuclear pursuits. It also has defied the international community and hopes to use its nuclear programme – and the destabilizing threat it poses to a strategically crucial region – to extract some kind of “grand security bargain” from the US. On both fronts, Obama’s vulnerability lies exposed.

    Pyongyang seems to be pursuing missile development for reasons of both prestige and economic survival. The Kim regime has to prove itself to the people that his poor health does not come in the way of his exercising power effectively and independently, while at the same time demonstrate progress to its international clients. Its missile sales to Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen have been the main income-earners for the impoverished country in recent years. Pyongyang’s strategy of surviving in power and buying legitimacy may serve short term goals but would keep North Korea in a perpetual state of instability.