North Korea's Missile Launch: The Risks of Overreaction
Asia Briefing N°91
31 Mar 2009
North Korea says it is preparing to launch an experimental communications satellite using a rocket that is part of its ballistic missile program. This would be in the face of an international outcry, and of what is a strong though not definitive argument that it violates two UN Security Council resolutions. Japan has been most vocally opposed, saying it will shoot down the rocket if it threatens to fall on its territory. But even if the test is successful, it would only slightly increase security risks, while an overblown response would likely jeopardise the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program. What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks rather than a divided reaction that only fulfils the North’s desire to widen splits among its neighbours.
The prospective launch fits a pattern of North Korean attention-seeking when faced with stresses at home, political changes abroad or failure to get what it wants in negotiations. Unfortunately, it leaves Japan, South Korea and the U.S. with few good options. If the launch does take place, the best outcome for the international community is simply for it to fail, as an earlier test did. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will gain considerable domestic credit if the launch is successful. If the rocket is shot down by either Japan or the U.S., the North Koreans would see this as a sign of Tokyo’s and Washington’s implacable hostility and almost certainly withdraw from the Six-Party Talks. If either state tries but fails to shoot it down, North Korea will be further emboldened.
Taepodong-2 missiles involve an unproven technology and do not represent a significant increase in risk to Japan. North Korea’s tested and apparently reliable Nodong missile can already carry a nuclear warhead as far as Tokyo. The Taepodong-2 could possibly reach Alaska but the likelihood of such a strike is negligible, since the North knows it would be devastated in any response. The launch of a Taepodong-2 also takes weeks to prepare; in a time of considerable tensions the missile could be destroyed on the pad.
Two other members of the Six-Party Talks, China and Russia, have shown little public concern about the launch, can be expected to hold that North Korea is entitled, like any other state, to launch satellites and so are unlikely to support strong measures against it. In preparation for the launch, Pyongyang has announced its accession to the Outer Space Treaty that permits the peaceful exploration of space without discrimination.
An overreaction to the test that prompts the North to abandon the Six-Party Talks would strengthen hardliners in Pyongyang. The talks have stalled in recent months over the failure to conclude a verification protocol for North Korea’s denuclearisation. Pyongyang was also clearly waiting for President Barack Obama to take office, hoping that his administration might be more willing than its predecessor to compromise. Japan has hardened its position against North Korea, with the decades-ago kidnappings of Japanese citizens re-emerging as a key problem. Tensions have also risen on the Korean peninsula over the tougher line on the North adopted by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. Resumption of the talks is still a possibility, but they could be permanently derailed if the missile is shot down.
Rather than raising the level of alarm over a launch that is likely to go ahead, the other five members of the Six-Party Talks should agree to a moderate set of measures that maintains their unity in the face of North Korea’s provocation. They could do this by:
issuing a joint statement condemning the launch as provocative in the current tense climate, reaffirming Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718, and demanding that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks;
seeking to reinvigorate the Security Council committee monitoring the UN sanctions regime, including by calling on member states to report regularly on measures taken to implement the sanctions regime, particularly the ban on transfers of weapons to North Korea, and by taking action against any violators of that ban;
offering to include discussion on space cooperation in resumed Six-Party Talks;
reaffirming support for the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative; and
South Korea, the United States and Japan agreeing on an overall package deal that can be presented to the North Koreans in exchange for major steps forward in nuclear and missile disarmament. Such a deal should be presented by a high-level U.S. envoy sent to meet Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. It could then be endorsed in the Six-Party process.
Seoul/Brussels, 31 March 2009