Showdown looms over N. Korean rocket
By Kim Young-jin
With the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit over, regional attention now focuses on North Korea’s eyebrow-raising plan to fire a long-range rocket next month and the challenges such an action promises to bring at the international level.
The North says the launch intends to put a satellite into orbit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder in mid-April. But Seoul, Washington and others disagree. They say the launch would provide cover for a long-range missile test because satellite-launch rockets share the same body, engine and other aspects as ballistic missiles.
On the sidelines of the summit, South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia said the launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. China did not draw a line in the sand, saying instead it would push the North, its ally, to drop the plan, expressing “deep concern” that it would have a negative impact on the peninsula.
The six nations constitute a forum to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Washington says the launch would break a bilateral deal meant to pave the way back to those negotiations.
With just over two weeks before the launch — planned for sometime between April 12 and 16 — analysts say the North is more than likely to follow through as it intends to consolidate the power of new leader Kim Jong-un, who is taking the reins after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December.
If the North does so, observers say Seoul and Washington are likely to bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council, where they have recently clashed with the North’s allies, particularly China, over Pyongyang’s provocative behavior.
In 2010, Beijing and Moscow, veto-wielding members of the council, rejected a campaign to censure the North for its deadly sinking of the warship Cheonan. China also opposed denouncing Pyongyang for its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Seoul says the launch would be a “grave provocation” as it allows the North to obtain the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile, strengthening its nuclear deterrent in defiance of international norms. It remains unclear whether Beijing will, as it did in 2009, accept the North’s claim of a satellite launch.
“This puts the Chinese in a difficult situation,” Jeffery Bader, a former National Security Council director said in a blog. “Typically in the past, when the North Koreans made clear they would not budge, the Chinese, feeling they lacked leverage over Pyongyang, have turned pressure on Washington to try to persuade it to be flexible and continue the process.”
Both Lee and Obama pressured Beijing, the North’s biggest economic partner, to use its leverage to persuade Pyongyang against the launch.
Analysts say China prioritizes stability in its North Korea policy, fearing a potential flood of refugees and U.S. military presence in case of instability there. They say this is particularly the case during the North’s leadership transition.
Some analysts saw a slight movement in China’s stance on the sidelines of the summit. Officials here said the Chinese leadership is urging its neighbor to focus on developing the lives of ordinary citizens instead of pursuing the costly launch.
What action Seoul and Washington could take at the UNSC also remains to be seen, as existing international sanctions over its past nuclear and missile tests are already in place and bilateral penalties are stringent. Pyongyang’s second nuclear test was conducted after the council released a presidential statement condemning a North Korean long-range missile test.