A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship
A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

A Calm Response Needed to North Korea’s Missile Brinkmanship

There can be few in the international community who would not wish that Kim Jong-Il could find some more constructive way of seeking attention than provocatively launching a missile over the heads of his neighbours, as North Korea seems likely to do in the next day or two. But at least his current behaviour is more or less predictable: Pyongyang regularly engages in tantrums and brinkmanship when faced with stresses at home, political changes abroad, or failure to get what it wants in negotiations.

What is a little less clear is how the other five countries in the Six-Party talks will respond to North Korea's launch of an experimental communications satellite, which will use a rocket that is part of its ballistic missile program. At the moment there is an unhappy prospect of real divisions opening up between China and Russia, taking a softer line, and the US, Japan and South Korea taking a harder one.

Washington and Tokyo would certainly like to argue a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1695, passed after North Korea's last barrage of missile launches in 2006 and demanding that it stop them in future. But, with likely support from Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang argues this does not extend to a peaceful satellite rocket launch permitted under the Outer Space Treaty. North Korea does have credible reasons for wanting to show its ability to put satellites into space, and in a dual-use situation like this, the legal argument for applying 1695 is at best inconclusive.

China's  and Russia's evident lack of  concern about  North Korea's  threatened launch, contrasts with Japan at the other end of the spectrum. Tokyo has been vociferous, saying it will shoot down the rocket if it threatens to fall on its territory. But while this tough response please domestic audiences, history shows that pressure alone is very unlikely to influence Pyongyang's behaviour in a positive way.

Neither very hard nor very soft approaches are going to get Pyongyang back to seriously negotiating the denuclearisation of North Korea. The five parties need to be more prudent and pragmatic.

First, they need to make a realistic assessment of exactly what a missile test would mean. A test failure would no doubt be the best outcome the international community could hope for. A successful launch would gain Kim Jong-il some credit domestically, but only slightly increase the security risks Japan, South Korea and the US actually face. The tested and reliable Nodong missile can already carry a nuclear warhead as far as Tokyo, and while the Taepongdo-2 missile involved in the current launch preparations could carry one to Alaska, Pyongyang knows it would be devastated in any response.

Second, it needs to be recognised that an overblown response, such as Japan or the US shooting down the rocket, would  jeopardise the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea's nuclear program. The five parties would be openly split more than ever before, and North Korea would see this as a sign of Tokyo and Washington's implacable hostility and almost certainly withdraw from the Talks.

It could also worsen tensions on the Korean Peninsula and promote hard liners in Pyongyang at a time when the North is facing strains over succession. In the worst case, albeit unlikely, it could risk a war with potentially devastating damage to Japan and South Korea -- not to mention the world economy. Another bad scenario would be for  either Japan or the US to try but fail to shoot down the missile, which would certainly lead to North Korea  being further emboldened.

Rather than either raising the level of alarm over a launch likely to go ahead in any case, or doing nothing at all in response, all five other 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 aggressive action. They could do this by issuing a joint statement condemning the launch as provocative in the current tense climate, reaffirming the relevant Security Council Resolutions (1695, and its successor 1718), and demanding that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks.

They could back this up by reinvigorating the Security Council committee monitoring the UN sanctions regime, including calling on member states to report regularly on measures such as the ban on transfers of weapons to North Korea, and by taking action against any violators of that ban.

Finally, Japan, South Korea, and the US should agree on an overall package of incentives, including diplomatic relations and expanded economic development assistance, that can be presented to the North Koreans - after an appropriate cooling off period -- in exchange for major steps forward in nuclear and missile disarmament.

North Korea's latest provocative moves are frustrating and threatening, but escalation will benefit no one. What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks, not the divided reaction that Kim Jong-Il wants.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.