North to Test Missile Technology in April
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North to Test Missile Technology in April

This is a summary piece taken from the Chosun Ilbo of the situation with regard to the North’s advertised April launch of a communications satellite, which in practice would be a test of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile technology. It tends to see the event, which the South, Japan, and the South all view as a hostile military gesture, as a fait accompli.

For Barack Obama’s administration it is hard to take. The government of Kim Jong-il has announced the date of its missile show (April 4 – 8). It is intended to demonstrate that the North is “an actual threat” (according to commander of US forces in Korea, Walter Sharp). But America finds itself in a situation where, according to Yu Ho-yeol of Korea University, “it cannot put in to place any response card or clear measure of restraint.” Any foreign policy that might be used in persuading and pressurizing the North into not launching its missile is spent. North Korea ignores even America’s warnings that it will intercept the missile.

President Obama knows that second guessing North Korea is difficult. As a senator, he said the following. “North Korea is also a country. Because of this, it is wrong to think that it cannot act irrationally. North Korea acts in accord with its ideological fantasy even more than the old Soviet Union.”

However, that acknowledgement is only theoretical. Obama is now only at the beginning of his course in Kim Jong-il studies. Since the swearing in of his administration, the North Korea problem has been pushed to the back burner. “The effort to realize the application of Obama’s tough and direct policy against the North in concert with Clinton’s smart policy is undergoing difficulties. The missile threat has caught Obama’s scant acknowledgement of North Korea and his foreign policy priorities off guard,” said a foreign policy insider.

Last week, North Korea refused US food assistance. If it fires a missile, the US will bring sanctions against it. The US has passed UN Security Council resolution 1718. That includes the possibility of halting food support. Nam Song-uk at the National Security Strategic Research Center says, “The rejection of food aid is merely the North leading off on the front foot. They are disempowering themselves in advance of America’s expected sanctions.” North Korea has detained two female American journalists. It will use that case to heighten interest in the missile show.

North Korea claims the missile (Taepodong II) show is the launch of a communications satellite (Gwangmyeongsong II). The core technology for both is the same. Stephen Bosworth, North Korea policy special representative, says, “The North Korea nuclear genie escaped from the bottle during the Bush administration.” Now the genie is getting bigger. The missile show is intended to show off their ICBM capability.

America is making military preparations. But the likelihood of it shooting down the missile mid-flight is slim because the risks of interception are too great. North Korea is stockpiling its justifications for the satellite launch. It has even given advance notice of its intentions to international monitoring organizations. This renders the launch a knotty problematic according to the basis of international law.

The possibility of a failed intercept attempt also weighs heavily with the US. If it fails, it could expose a fatal error in the missile defense system. And it would be difficult to maintain the future cooperation of Russia and China. The backlash from the North itself would also heighten tensions in North-east Asia. Japan shares these concerns. A government insider said, “When Bosworth came to Seoul, at was if the weight of the issue had already shifted to policy formulation for the “post missile world”.”

Interception is what Obama is resolved to do. Yet he is currently giving his undivided attention to economic issues. He sent a message of reconciliation to Iran on the 20th March. Last month, the Iranians launched a communications satellite of their own. Yet America expressed its concern only by word of mouth. Iran has enjoyed North Korea’s technological support. The message from America with regard to the missile launch was raised in a delicate manner. Robert Carlucci, an American negotiator at the 1994 Geneva conference, emphasized that the “missile problem doesn’t represent any real change in the North’s nuclear threat. There’s no need to pay any special attention to it outside of it being an act designed to enhance the North’s position in any political negotiations.”

Carlucci’s opinion represents the mood of the US government. “There are limits to American pressure. Because of this they keep on with negotiations and prefer a low key strategy,” says Kim Jong-won of Sejong University. Accordingly, the bulk of opinion says that the unfolding situation will follow the pattern of missile launch followed by a debate in the UN Security Council about sanctions followed by a North Korea – US meeting and/or a resumption of the six party talks.

“In terms of its policy approach to the Americans, there’s nothing the North will lose as a result of the launch,” says a Korean government spokesperson. “The missile is Kim Jong-il’s flower show.”

In advance of the April 4-8 launch, I’m running a blog on the issue here.