All Eyes on North Korea Ahead of Rocket Launch

North Korea's plans to fire a long-range rocket into space next month have consumed the region's attention even as dozens of nations gathered in South Korea for a major even that was not supposed to focus specifically on Pyongyang, the Korea Times reported on Tuesday (see GSN, March 27).

In remarks on the margins of  this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, Japan, the United States and Russia all said the North's launch plans would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the aspiring nuclear power from carrying out ballistic missile operations. China was less forceful in its public response but did note "deep concern" on the issue.

Reporting this week indicated the North has placed the rocket on its launchpad for what officially is intended to be an effort to send a satellite into space. Washington and other capitals suspect the flight instead would be another test of the North's ballistic missile technology.

Issue experts think the North will go through with the rocket launch, planned to take place between April 12 and 16, as it could improve new leader Kim Jong Un's domestic standing.

The United States has indicated the launch could undo a recent bilateral deal in which the North would receive 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid in exchange for shut down nuclear activities at its Yongbyon complex and agreeing not to conduct additional nuclear or long-range missile tests. Additionally, Washington and Seoul would be expected to seek new Security Council action against North Korea, specialists said.

The South Korean government said the launch would constitute a "grave provocation" as it would actually further the North's development of long-distance missiles that could be outfitted with nuclear weapons.

While a number of its neighbors assume the rocket launch is a front for another long-range ballistic missile test, it is not apparent that China shares this view.

“This puts the Chinese in a difficult situation,” Ex-U.S. National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs Jeffery Bader wrote in a web post. “Typically in the past, when the North Koreans made clear they would not budge, the Chinese, feeling they lacked leverage over Pyongyang, have turned pressure on Washington to try to persuade it to be flexible and continue the process" of aid-for-denuclearization talks (Kim Young-jin, Korea Times I, March 27).

The communique approved by state leaders at the end of the two-day nuclear security meeting did not address the North's planned rocket launch, the Times noted (Kim Young-jin, Korea Times II, March 27).

With elections coming up in November in both South Korea and the United States, experts foresee Pyongyang likely escaping serious consequences for its rocket launch, the Christian Science Monitor reported. "North Korea has given a kind of dilemma to both the U.S. and South Korea in that they will go ahead with the rocket launch," said former South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo.

Furthermore, neither Moscow nor Beijing are anticipated to jeopardize their own ties with Pyongyang by going beyond rhetoric in their opposition to the launch, observers said. "China and Russia will put some modest pressure. But they will not be taking concrete steps," Sejong Institute North Korea expert Paik Han-soon said (Donald Kirk, Christian Science Monitor, March 27).

Some issue specialists suspect the North Korean envoys who worked out the terms of the nuclear shutdown-for-food aid deal with the United States were overruled by regime hawks who want the satellite launch to go ahead in commemoration of the centennial birth of Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the New York Times reported.

“The problem may well be the recklessness of hard-liners who apparently are calling the shots in policy-making in North Korea now. It seriously damages the standing of negotiators on both sides," Seoul National University researcher Chang Yong-seok said (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, March 27).

Seoul's representative to the regional process focused on North Korean denuclearization, Lim Sung-nam, on Wednesday met with International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano, to discuss how the U.N. nuclear watchdog would address the rocket launch as well as the possibility of IAEA inspectors returning to North Korea, an anonymous South Korean official told the Yonhap News Agency (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, March 28).

Tokyo's ambassador to the six-party talks, Shinsuke Sugiyama, on Wednesday spoke by telephone with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov. The two men agreed their governments would join efforts in attempting to deter Pyongyang from carrying out the rocket launch, Kyodo News reported (Kyodo News, March 28).

Elsewhere, a floating U.S. long-range radar system left Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Friday to return to sea, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

The X-band radar unit "is returning to sea to continue its mission as part of the ballistic missile defense system," Missile Defense Agency spokeswoman Pam Rogers told the newspaper on Monday. She declined to say whether the radar might be employed in tracking the flight of the North Korean rocket.

The missile tracker's ultimate destination is not know. The system is so powerful it does not have to be close to the Korean Peninsula in order to detect and monitor the North's satellite launch (William Cole, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, March 27).

March 28, 2012

North Korea's plans to fire a long-range rocket into space next month have consumed the region's attention even as dozens of nations gathered in South Korea for a major even that was not supposed to focus specifically on Pyongyang, the Korea Times reported on Tuesday.