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Whats Up With North Korea?
John Feffer, The Epoch Times
It doesnt take a rocket scientist to figure out why North Korea just launched another rocket. The country wants attention. It craves the prestige of putting a satellite into orbit. It hopes to gather information for its missile program. And its angling to up the ante in the great poker game called the Six Party Talks that also involves the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia.
The stakes are certainly high. The launch could dramatically escalate tensions in the region. Or it could, like North Koreas nuclear test in 2006, provide a bracing reminder of the importance of diplomacy and compromise.
1. How Can North Koreas Rocket be Both a Satellite and a Missile?
North Korea has signed the appropriate international protocols governing satellites and given the proper notification. The UN resolution sanctioning North Korea after its 2006 nuclear test does not explicitly forbid satellite launches.
Regardless of the ultimate reasons behind the rocket launch, North Koreas missile program isnt exactly world class. Its 1998 test failed. Its 2006 test failed. Early reports suggest that the payload this time fell into the Pacific Ocean. So, it is 0 for 3. Given its battered economy and the global recession, Pyongyang isnt likely to get a robust program in place any time soon.
2. What Does North Korea Hope to Gain With Its Launch?
North Korea also knows that the West views its satellite launch as a missile. It can therefore send a signal, if the launch is successful, that it is that much closer to being able to deliver a weapon of mass destruction. Thus, it strengthens its position at the bargaining table. Indeed, like the nuclear test in 2006, it can dramatically increase the stakes and give more urgency to the discussions, possibly extracting a better deal. At the poker table, it once held only one hole card the other players couldnt see, namely its nuclear program. With a missile program, particularly one of unknown dimensions and accuracy, its developing a second hole card.
Finally, on a more mundane level, a rocket launch is the equivalent of a war in the sense of showing off the goods to potential buyers. North Korea hasnt been in a war for half a century. Potential buyers of its missiles get only rare glimpses of North Koreas wares in action and so will carefully scrutinize this rocket launch.
3. Can This Lead to War?
Tokyo vowed to shoot down anything that encroached on its territory, whether targeted missile, errant rocket, or debris. Fortunately, no debris ultimately fell on Japan. And North Korea did not follow through on its threat to shoot down any U.S. surveillance planes that encroach on its airspace.
While war can happen for the most inadvertent of reasons, no one in Northeast Asia is itching for a fight.
4. Will This Derail the Six Party Talks?
The Six Party Talks have gone through several cycles of crisis and cooperation. The current disputes, rocket launch notwithstanding, arent unsolvable. The verification issue is largely technical and requires a hard-nosed compromise between North Koreas fears of a breach of its military security and U.S. anxiety about being hoodwinked. The two sides negotiated a secret memorandum over the summer covering the uranium enrichment program and proliferation concerns, so theyre at least broaching these questions. Calibrating energy shipments and dismantlement is more a logistical problem than a political one—though delays on the Japanese and South Korean side have a political flavor. Still, if the parties reach agreement on the other outstanding disputes, the energy/dismantlement roadblock can be cleared.
It was widely assumed that North Koreas nuclear test in October 2006 would drive a stake through the heart of the six-party process. Instead, after a significant reversal of Bush administration policies, the negotiators were able to hammer out the February 13, 2007 agreement, which still today provides a roadmap for a peaceful, non-nuclear Korean peninsula.
5. Has U.S. Policy Diverged From Japanese and South Korean Approaches?
The Obama administration hasnt fully developed its North Korea policy yet, in part because many of the key appointments are only now being made. While all three countries make ritual obeisance to the principle of trilateral coordination, they each have different priorities. Japan is transfixed by the abduction issue South Korea has focused more on economic cooperation and the conventional military threat from the North and the United States has cared above all about North Koreas nuclear program.
6. What should Washington do?
The United States should be looking at technical compromises that can break the deadlock over verification. At the same time, it should push forward with the larger engagement package, which includes a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice, concrete steps toward normalization, and a roadmap that Pyongyang can follow to become integrated in the global economy. A side deal on North Koreas missile program, which was on the table at the end of the Clinton administration, might also go a long way toward allaying both Japanese and South Korean concerns. A narrow focus on non-proliferation, however, is a recipe for prolonged, fitful, and probably fruitless negotiations. Only by expanding the number of options on the table can the Obama administration make headway.
The Obama administration has several things going for it. The president has emphasized the importance of diplomacy and sitting down with countries with which the United States disagrees. It can take advantage of political appointments like Stephen Bosworth as special representative for North Korea policy and long-serving experts like Sung Kim who will handle the Six Party Talks negotiations, both of whom have considerable experience in the field.
John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus. This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus, www.fpif.org.
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