North Korea launches a new crisis

North Korea's declaration to launch a satellite to mark the centenary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, may fuel the tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Source: AP

North Korea's declaration to launch a satellite to mark the centenary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, may fuel the tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Source: AP

By announcing its plans to commemorate the birthday of Kim Il Sung with a satellite, North Korea has extinguished the hopes of those who believed a new leader would lead to peace in the country.

North Korea is once again vying with Iran for the title of the world’s top troublemaker. On March 16, Pyongyang declared it would launch a satellite to mark the centenary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. However, hardly any state in the world shared the North Korean’s jubilant mood over this announcement.

The launch is due to take place April 14-16. The International Civil Aviation Organization as well as other international organizations have been officially briefed on the technical parameters of the launch and the expected locations where the booster rocket’s first and second stages would fall. North Korea will invite foreign guests to watch the launch, although not many are expected to turn up.

All the key international players – the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, the UN Secretary General and the EU representative – have condemned the announced launch.

“Such a missile launch would pose a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Russia “has never denied the sovereign right of North Korea to peaceful space exploration. At the same time, UN Security Council Resolution 1874 requires Pyongyang to renounce any launches using ballistic missile technology, whether it be military missiles or civilian booster rockets.”

Seoul’s reaction has been the toughest. “Our government describes the planned launch by North Korea of a so-called ‘working satellite’ as brazen provocation aimed at creating means of delivery for long-range nuclear weapons using ballistic missile technology,” a spokesman for the South Korean President said on March 19.

Also on Monday, it was announced that South Korea, as the host of the second non-proliferation summit scheduled for March 26-27, intends to put the issue of the satellite launch on the agenda as a separate item. The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the North Korean topic is likely to be discussed during the bilateral meetings on the fringes of the summit, which will be attended by heads of state and government of 53 states, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Perhaps this was Pyongyang’s goal in making its sensational launch announcement.

Pavel Leshakov, director of the Korean Studies Center at Moscow University, believes that Pyongyang is probably pursuing both domestic goals – to demonstrate to its people the state’s latest achievements – and external goals – to demonstrate to the world the growth of its military capability.

The elevation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following the death of his father Kim Jong Il late last December generated hopes that the negotiating process on the North Korean nuclear program would get a new lease of life.

On Feb. 23 and 24, negotiations were held in Beijing between North Korea’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and U.S. Special Representative Glenn Davis. As a result of the negotiations, Pyongyang agreed to introduce a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment activities at its enterprise in Nyongbyon.

In addition, the foreign ministry spokesman stressed, “in response to the U.S. request and in order to maintain a positive atmosphere at the high-level talks between North Korea and the United States has agreed to allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on enrichment while a productive dialogue is under way.”

The U.S., for its part, promised to supply North Korea, which has been hit by crop failures and flooding for several years in a row, with 240,000 tons of food aid, which may later be increased.

Yet North Korea apparently intends to start the next round of the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula not as a hungry beggar, but as an equal participant in terms of its military capacity. That means, above all, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for their delivery. The announcement of the satellite launch should be a reminder that Pyongyang has all this and is ready to use it.

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland has already confirmed that the satellite launch would deter the U.S. from providing food aid, yet North Koreans are used to tightening their belts. The West’s actions in Libya, direct threats to Syria and Iran have apparently influenced North Korea’s foreign policy more than the change of leader in December.

“There is a sense that the increasing frequency of gross and even military interference in the internal affairs of countries might prompt certain authoritarian regimes (and not only them) to acquire nuclear weapons. That is to say, I have an atom bomb in my pocket and you can only touch me at your own peril. And those that have no bomb – let them expect a ‘humanitarian’ intervention,” said Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin in an op-ed on foreign policy published on the eve of the March elections.

The North Korean situation fits into that picture.The fate of the six-party talks under the current conditions is hard to predict. A military solution scenario would be perhaps even more dangerous than in the case of Iran. But it would be naïve to wait for the current North Korean regime to collapse. What remains is to turn the heat on and off again with occasional border clashes of varying intensity.       

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