By Tong Kim
Amid international concerns of the announced North Korean rocket launch in mid-April, South Koreans are more focused on their parliamentary elections set for April 11, a prelude to the presidential poll in December that will definitely transform South Korea’s policy on the North.
Most assessments of the race between the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) predict that neither party will seize a majority in the next legislature. The DUP have produced unified candidates with the United Progressive Party (UPP), resulting in some inept selections. The Saenuri Party refurbished its image by choosing many fresh candidates, but not without some backfires, and by departing from policy of the unpopular incumbent administration.
Unlike the two previous general elections, which handed majority status to the governing party of Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 and then to Lee Myung-bak in 2008, this year’s elections are being closely contested nationwide between the two major parties, with many districts too close to call. Depending on which of the two secure more seats, the policy latitude of the Lee administration will be severely affected.
Campaign headquarters of both camps are claiming that they are underdogs, attempting to lure their supporters to the polls. Several predictions are that the DUP will win 130 to 140 seats, about 10 seats more than the Saenuri Party, while the UPP could win up to 20. If these figures turn out to be true, the DUP and the UPP together would be able to constitute a majority. However, nothing is certain until the votes have been counted.
Whichever party wins the election, the nation will have to immediately deal with a rocket launch, which North Korea is almost certain to carry out. Pyongyang will probably defy all objections and warnings from the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union, who gathered in Seoul to attend the second Nuclear Security Summit last week.
Pyongyang is unyielding to Chinese persuasion or to collective pressure from the international community. As a last ditch resort to stop the launch might be a high level joint U.S.-China delegation going to Pyongyang to revive the U.S. offer of 2000 to make an arrangement to launch a North Korean satellite by a third country with no cost to the North. It would be wise to engage the North again, even after a rocket launch, given no likelihood of an early collapse there.
Pyongyang stole the show at the summit by announcing a provocative rocket launch and threatening that it would consider any discussion of the North Korean nuclear issue in the summit as “a declaration of war against us.” The summit’s final communique did not include any mention of the very issue.
A follow-up to the first Washington nuclear summit in 2010, the Seoul summit took a step forward towards its goal of nuclear security and safety, as well as the reduction of nuclear materials ― weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium and separated plutonium ― to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
However, Seoul’s successful hosting of the largest summit from 53 countries and four international organizations was overshadowed by the provocative North Korean announcement that drew more attention of the summit and the heated election campaigns that focused more on the economic issues than the nuclear issues or the rocket launch.
Pyongyang argues that it has never agreed to a moratorium on missile tests that would include a satellite launch. Washington insists that the North Koreans understood a rocket launch would be a deal breaker of the Feb. 29 accord. Unaware of what exactly transpired in the negotiation of the moratorium, it is difficult to refute the North Korean argument.
However, the North Koreans are missing the point. They must not have forgotten the fact that their 2009 rocket launch that they also said was a satellite project in the exercise of their sovereign right to peaceful space exploration was condemned by the U.N. Security Council as a provocative security threat. They also well understand the military significance of a satellite launch, as the same technology could be used to make intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
In the meantime, the North is already paying a high price for its planned launch. The United States has suspended its nutritional assistance amounting to 240,000 tons. Washington has lost confidence in Pyongyang’s commitment to implement the February agreement, a further delay to resume the six-party talks.
The U.S. Defense Department cancelled its planned recovery operations of the remains of missing American soldiers during the Korean War. This would be a loss of revenue of scarce foreign currency directly to the North Korean military. President Barack Obama said there would be no reward for provocation. A nominee for U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy said that a North Korean rocket launch would lead to a complete review of U.S. policy on North Korea, which would pose a more serious threat to U.S. security.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is unlikely to accept the North Korean invitation to monitor an agreed freeze on the nuclear activities, including the uranium enrichment program. Japan and South Korea are getting ready to intercept and destroy the rocket if it strays into their territorial air space.
Whatever pressing reason North Korea might have to go through with the launch, the consequence would be clear: increased tension, more isolation for Pyongyang, further distance from denuclearization, and more difficulty for the next administrations in Seoul and Washington to work with the North.
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.