The United States has few tools for punishing North Korea should the aspiring nuclear power carry out an announced long-range rocket firing in coming weeks, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, April 2).
Pyongyang has declared plans to use a long-range Unha 3 rocket to place an Earth-observation satellite into orbit. The launch is to take place between April 12 and 16; recent satellite pictures indicate North Korea is making significant preparations for the effort.
The United States, South Korea, Japan and others have condemned the rocket firing as illegal under a U.N. Security Council resolution that forbids the Stalinist state from conducting ballistic missile operations.
The Obama administration can be expected to pursue some kind of penalty or rebuke for the North at the U.N. Security Council and could order heightened national sanctions, experts said. The effectiveness of these actions, though, will be in doubt if China does not support the measures. Beijing is North Korea's top economic benefactor and has sought to protect its longtime ally from international censure.
Additionally, there is the potential for significant repercussions from new sanctions or condemnations against the North. The Security Council's rebuke of an apparent North Korean ballistic missile test in spring 2009 led the regime to expel U.N. nuclear monitors, withdraw from denuclearization negotiations and detonate a second nuclear test device.
The regional security situation is more perilous than it was in 2009, AP reported. North Korea is assumed to be behind two 2010 attacks that left 50 South Koreans dead. Pyongyang has not apologized for the incidents and Seoul has warned it would respond quickly and harshly to any future North Korean strikes.
Three test launches since 1998 have indicated that North Korea continues to struggle with its long-range ballistic missile capabilities. A successful missile launch this month, though, could show that areas of the United States are now within striking distance of Pyongyang's ballistic missiles.
"At minimum, there has to be a statement of criticism" by the Security Council, Korea expert Gordon Flake said in Washington. "The question is how North Korea will react, and history suggests it won't react well."
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo could attempt to additionally limit the North's access to the international financial sector as well as its ability to sell its weapons abroad.
"The U.S. is highly likely to unveil another round of sanctions to send a clear political message to North Korea," Harvard University Northeast Asia analyst John Park said.
A number of regional players including China, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia have criticized or questioned the upcoming rocket launch. The degree of international concern is partly the result of the announced flight path of the Unha rocket, which should carry it over Southeast Asian waters; a number of countries have voiced concerns about the impact of falling debris should the rocket malfunction, as has happened with previous launches.
Though China disagrees with the North's rocket plans, it is not expected to push the issue as Beijing's top concern is ensuring the stability of the new Kim Jong Un regime, Park said. Kim was elevated to power in December following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Furthermore, the Obama administration is not anticipated to jeopardize its own ties with Beijing by implementing new unilateral sanctions on Chinese firms that engage in commerce with the North, he said (Matthew Pennington, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, April 3).
An Obama administration spokesman on Monday would not address satellite pictures taken last week that appear to depict a great deal of preparatory activity around North Korea's missile launch facility, U.S. News and World Report reported.
Former Bush administration North Korea expert Victor Cha said Tokyo and Seoul are urging Washington to further press Beijing to use its influence to persuade North Korea to abandon the launch. "From their perspective, the U.S. can never put enough pressure on China. But the reality is that China can pressure all it wants, but there's no way the North Koreans are not going to do this," he said (U.S. News and World Report, April 2).
Tokyo and Washington on Monday jointly examined potential responses to the rocket launch, Agence France-Presse reported.
Senior Japanese nuclear negotiator Shinsuke Sugiyama said his government wanted to see cohesive multinational measures. "I don't think I'll try to deny that we are discussing the contingency measures, which means ... trying to take measures if the launch is going to materialize" (Agence France-Presse I/Google News, April 2).
Tokyo has turned down a request from Pyongyang to send Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency officials to witness the the rocket launch, AFP reported.
"It is inappropriate that any Japanese officials participate in observing the launch," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said. "Japan has asked North Korea not to launch a rocket" (Agence France-Presse II/Channel News Asia, April 3).
The Japanese government on Tuesday renewed for an additional year national sanctions targeting North Korea, Reuters reported.
"We decided to extend by one year a measure that prohibits North Korean ships from calling at Japanese ports and another measure that bans imports and exports with the North," Fujimura informed journalists (Kiyoshi Takenaka, Reuters, April 3).
Elsewhere, the North could be readying to display at a military parade this month a large new missile that might have the ability to strike the mainland United States, the London Telegraph reported.
South Korean government insiders revealed to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that satellite images of the missile at a site in Pyongyang indicate it has a strong rocket component that could send a warhead a distance greater than 6,200 miles. The sources said they could not ascertain whether the missile is a working model or just a "life-size mock-up" (Julian Ryall, London Telegraph, April 3).
Separately, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has ordered that the nation's armed forces mount a rapid punitive assault on Pyongyang if the South Korean capital comes under attack by the North, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday.
An unidentified high-ranking defense official told journalists that orders to "immediately retaliate ... in self-defense" had been given, though no further information on individual targets was shared.
The two Korean capitals are separated by roughly 125 miles. South Korean ballistic missiles are capable of reaching Pyongyang and the South also has a variety of cruise missiles that can strike the North's missile and nuclear facilities (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, April 2).