Saturday, July 08, 2006

mixed results for North Korea missile tests

On Wednesday July 5 (not July 4, US Independence Day, as incorrectly reported by many media), North Korea carried out nuclear missile tests which have caused a storm of worldwide reaction.

North Korea's most dangerous potential weapon is the Taepodong-2 (named by outside observers for the launch site) missile, the range of which is thought to include Australia and parts of Alaska and Hawaii however Pyongyang has a very limited number of these experimental long-range missiles. The Taepodong-2 launch was unsuccessful with the first stage engine burning for just 40 seconds, less than half its expected time. Several minutes later, the missile fell into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) which lies between North Korea, Russia and Japan. The Taepodong-2 is a larger version of the Taepodong-1, which was tested in 1998 in a probable failed attempt to place Pyongyang's Kwangmyongsong satellite into orbit. The Koreans claimed the launch was successful and the satellite was transmitting the melody of the immortal revolutionary hymns ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il’ and the Morse signals ‘Juche Korea’ in 27 MHz'. Despite these explict details no evidence could be uncovered by Western intelligence agencies that the spacecraft had actually reached orbit.

Though North Korea failed in its longer-term ambitions on July 7, the test two days earlier was more successful when they launched the short range Hwasong and the medium range Nodong missiles. They have up to 200 Nadong missiles which have a range of up to 1,300 kilometres (putting it in reach of Japan and Okinawa.) The Nadong is based on Scud technology and Pyongyang has sold the weapon to Iran, Syria and Libya.

Unlike the 1998 launch, few were surprised by this week’s activities. Though the exact launch date was unknown, North Korea did little to hide the exercise. In June, American satellite photographs revealed that the North was proceeding with the test-firing of the long-range missile at a launching pad on a remote east coast site. Just days before the launch, the Chinese tried to put together an "informal" meeting of the dormant six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. The six parties are the US, Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas. The North has boycotted the talks since September, citing American efforts to blacklist the Macau bank it uses for overseas financial transactions.

Because the long-range missile failed, the US has not played a large role in the response. US national security advisor, Stephen Hadley called the tests “provocative behaviour,” but added that they marked “no immediate threat” to the US. Japan, which views itself as the main military focus of the North Korean tests, reacted more strongly. It has implemented sanctions, including banning North Korean officials from visiting Japan and suspending the ferry from North Korea to Japan. Tokyo also took the North Korean missile tests to the U.N. Security Council. Japan asked the Council on Friday to ban international sales of North Korean missiles. The US States, Britain and France back the resolution but it is opposed by the other two permanent members China and Russia.

The South Korean response has been less clear-cut than Japan. Seoul political bickering and their desire for political unification mean that they have mixed threats of economic retaliation (withholding food and fertilizer shipments) with calls for dialogue with Pyongyang. Russia, who were not notified in advance, criticized the launch but called for a calm response. Russian President Putin was quoted as saying “We would prefer it if Russia and the international community did not receive such presents” but also cautioned "these events should not lead to emotions that would conquer common sense when considering such issues." Whereas China, which provides the North with its oil and much of its food, is apparently unconcerned by the launch despite the North's rebuff to their talks proposal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said "we'll continue to work together with all the other parties and play a constructive role."

North Asia is a powderkeg. Since 2000, North Korea has more than quadrupled its suspected stockpile of plutonium, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and resumed flight testing of its missiles. China is arming heavily and South Korea and Japan are also keeping pace. The launch could increase support for hawkish candidates in the race to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is scheduled to retire in September. The chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe is favourite to succeed Koizumi has built his popularity with a tough stance on North Korea and China. Abe said the tests were "a serious problem from the standpoint of our national security, peace and stability of the international community and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The North, however, said it had the right to test missiles. South Korea's Yonhap news agency on Friday quoted Choe Myong Nam, councillor at the North's UN mission in Geneva, as saying the launches were successful and could be continued. "It's an unfair logic to say that somebody can do something and others cannot. The same logic applies to nuclear possession," Choe said. He continued, “the missile launches are not intended to strike anyone and it's the North position that missile launches could be continued,"

It is safe to say that the world has not heard the last of Taepodong-2. That is one of few things that are safe in the troubled Sea of Japan.

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