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North Korea’s Rocket Launch: Tension In Northeast Asia Returns – Analysis


The year 2016 started with a lot of tensions, particularly for Northeast Asia, thanks for the audacious provocative acts of Kim Jong-un of North Korea. First, North Korea surprised the world with a fourth nuclear test in January, and then without leaving the UN Security Council time to respond, launched another satellite into the orbit on 7 February. The prognosis of such acts makes analysts believe that 2016 could become one of the most turbulent years in some time, showing potential for a Kaesong complex close down, THAAD deployment in South Korea and much more. There could also be possibility of the China-South Korea warmth resulting from North Korea’s recent behaviour might wither away because Beijing is unlikely to act tough owing to its own strategic compulsions.

North Korea is back in the news again as usual for wrong reason. As has been its wont, its indulgence in provocative acts, be it nuclear test, missile, verbal threats to South Korea and the US etc never looks ending. The world has little option other than firmly condemn Pyongyang’s gross violation of the UNSC resolutions and demonstrate solidarity. This time again, by defying warnings of tougher sanctions from Washington, North Korea launched a rocket on 7 February 2016, suspected to be a part of a program to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies. According to South Korean Defense Ministry, the rocket blasted off from Tongchang-ri, the North’s main satellite launch site near its north-western border with China.

International response

As expected, North Korea’s satellite launch into space triggered a wave of international condemnation and prompting strong reaction from an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. The United States, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, Britain and France, as well as the European Union and NATO, were swift to condemn the launch.
Though Pyongyang said the launch was for scientific and “peaceful purposes”, it is being widely viewed by the rest of the world as a front to test a ballistic missile, especially after its purported hydrogen bomb test a month earlier. Both acts are in defiance of international sanctions. Like before, this time also the UNSC said that the launch was “a clear threat to international peace and security”. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the launch was “deeply deplorable” and in violation of Security Council resolutions “despite united plea of the international community against such acts”.

The Unha rocket used to launch North’s last satellite is believed to be based on the Taepodong long range ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of around 5,600 miles (9,000 km). That would put Australia, much of Western Europe, and the US West Coast in range of a North Korean warhead. It is believed that North Korea has at least a dozen and perhaps as many as 100 nuclear weapons, though at present it lacks sophisticated delivery mechanisms.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called the launch a “major provocation, threatening not only the security of the Korean Peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well”. Earlier, North Korea had notified the International Maritime Organisation, the UN agency overseeing navigation safety that it planned to launch a rocket between 7 and 14 February to put a satellite into orbit. As was the case in the hydrogen bomb test in January, Pyongyang claimed success. The US and allied nations believe Pyongyang’s satellite program was a sort of cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear bomb. Under a series of UN resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons or ballistic missile technologies. But Pyongyang has demonstrated time and again by its acts that it has little respect for such resolutions.

China, its only treaty ally, is also frustrated by North Korea’s behaviour. The North has been defying China, which issued strong appeals not to proceed, but Pyongyang showed ultimate disrespect despite Beijing has kept the North afloat by keeping trade ties as well as sending oil, which keeps the military and the rudimentary economy working. Beijing even sent a senior diplomat to Pyongyang in the first week of February with a specific message that Pyongyang should desist from its planned launch. As it transpired, the visit was unsuccessful. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un knows that Beijing’s leverage is diminished because of Beijing’s own strategic compulsions. Beijing has resisted Washington’s efforts to place tough sanctions on the North despite its nuclear tests as it fears that the move could destabilise the North. It was therefore while the US, Japan and South Korea pressed for firmer actions, China called for calm urging major powers to “act cautiously”. Despite Kim’s defiance, Beijing still has a major role to play in halting North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

While expressing regret over the North’s actions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged for dialogue as the best solution and therefore supported talks with North Korea involving the US. South Korea felt resolving the North Korean issue through dialogue no longer works, and therefore wanted “effective and strong sanctions”. India too expressed “deep concern” and stressed its worry over proliferation links between Northeast Asia and its neighbourhood, an apparent reference to Pakistan. It urged North Korea to refrain from such actions which adversely impact peace and stability in the region.

Reactions from Japan

In Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo may be emboldened and expect increased public support for his robust security policy and promote public debate about his calls for amending the Constitution. The North Korean act could push Abe to promote his diplomatic and domestic agenda in the run-up to the Upper House election soon.

Abe reached out to Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to closely cooperate work for adoption of a UN Security Council resolution to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. Abe told Obama “we must stop its dangerous provocations by any means”. Japan is also considering unilateral sanctions. In a separate telephone call to Park, Abe sought strong cooperation among the three countries – Japan, South Korea and the US in dealing with North Korea. Abe also expressed Japan’s support to begin discussions on the deployment of the THAAD system, while seeking Seoul’s help in solving the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals. In return Park expressed support for Japan’s move to strengthen sanctions against the North and committed trilateral cooperation along with Japan and the US. Japan’s Diet adopted a resolution on this issue, strongly condemning the launch and observed that it was “a grave challenge that significantly undermines the peace and security of the region, including Japan and the international community”. The resolutions in both Houses urged the government to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korea.

What were the unilateral sanctions imposed by Japan earlier and what are the new ones now? In 2014, Japan had lifted some sanctions which are now e-imposed and strengthened. New sanctions were also announced. Among these include:

  • Ban in principle on entry of North Korean nationals to Japan
  • Citizens asked to refrain from travelling to North Korea from Japan
  • Notification required when taking more than 100,000 Yen to North Korea
  • Ban on port entry by North Korean ships, including those on humanitarian missions
  • Senior officials of the General Association of Korean residents in Japan, and people supporting them, banned
  • from re-entering Japan after visiting North Korea (Known as Chosen Soren, the association has served for decades as tolerated conduits between Tokyo and Pyongyang)
  • (New sanctions) Foreign nuclear or missile engineers living in Japan banned from returning to Japan after visiting North Korea
  • Ban on remittances to North Korea (excluding cash transfers of up to Yen 100,000 for humanitarian purposes)
  • Ban on port entry by any foreign ships arriving after stopping in North.

In concert with the US, Japan also tightened financial sanctions on North Korea. Japan’s Self Defense Forces deployed PAC-3 surface-to-air batteries after North Korea revealed plans for the launch. PAC-3 was there to shoot down flying objects of any sort that could do any harm to Japan and the people. It transpired finally that those dangers were not imminent. Even while debate over North Korea’s technological progress goes on, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes that North Korea is planning its fifth nuclear test. A pro-North Korean newspaper in Tokyo has also predicted further ballistic missile launches.

South Korea’s response and closure of Kaesong Complex

South Korea was constrained to play one of its last cards. It suspended operations in Kaesong industrial complex with a view to put pressure on North Korea. It may be remembered that Japan and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. The history of the Kaesong industrial complex dates back to the engagement strategy adopted by the 1998-2003 administration of President Kim Dae Jung. The other project aimed at sending tourists from South Korea to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea was suspended in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot a South Korean tourist dead. Further when in March 2010 North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean corvette Cheonan killing 46 South Koreans, South Korea unilaterally imposed sanctions on the North by suspended trade between the two Koreas. Since then, the Kaesong complex was the only remaining project and active link between the two nations. Even when later in 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean Island, Seoul allowed operations in the complex to continue.

When Park felt that Pyongyang has crossed the threshold of tolerance, she decided to halt work at the industrial complex. This is bound to heighten tensions. Park’s response was rather measured and she had only reacted by restricting the entry of South Koreans to the complex after North Korea conducted the fourth test in January. Even after the rocket launch, she only reduced the number of South Korean workers there from 650 to 500. Park was concerned that the international community would have criticised if South Korea had continued to provide North Korea with foreign currency revenue through operation of the industrial complex.

The Kaesong industrial park first opened in 2004 as part of the ‘sunshine’ reconciliation policy reached between the authoritarian North and democratic South in the late 1990s. About 124 South Korean companies operate factories in Kaesong, employing more than 53,000 North Korean workers at an annual cost of $100 million, providing a source of badly needed hard currency for the impoverished North. The park was shut down once before, in 2013, when Pyongyang withdrew all of its workers and closed the complex for five months during a period of heightened cross-border tensions.

South Korea has certain vulnerability as most of the companies operating in the Kaesong complex are small or medium size operations attracted by North Korea’s cheap labour costs. In pulling them out, the South Korean government faces the burden to provide financial compensation and therefore the decision to shut Kaesong comes at a significant cost to South Korea. South Korea’s Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo even remarked that “if left unattended, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development …could eventually even lead to a nuclear domino effect in northeast Asia”, implying that Pyongyang’s nuclear tests would galvanise calls in the South to possess nuclear arms of its own. If South Korea decides to go nuclear in response to North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan cannot be expected to be left behind. Taiwan might follow suit too. The Northeast Asia would have then turned into the most nuclearized part of the world.

A backlash from Pyongyang was inevitable. Following the nuclear test in January, South Korea had already stepped up propaganda broadcasts sent across the border through large loudspeakers. South Korea is also scheduled to start the joint US-South Korea military training exercise from 7 March. This again would infuriate North Korea as it always says that the joint exercises are preparation for eventual invasion, which is why nuclear deterrent is felt necessary. It appears tension on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely to be abetted.

Following South Korea’s action on Kaesong commercial complex, North Korea responded by ordering a military takeover of the factory park and started deporting hundreds of South Koreans who work at the complex just across the world’s most heavily armed border of Panmunjom. North Korea also pulled out tens of thousands of its employees there and froze all South Korean assets and declared it a military zone. It also ordered shutting down two crucial cross-border communication hotlines. North’s moves significantly raised the stakes in a standoff that began with the nuclear test in January and further escalated by the rocket launch. Any hope of normalcy has further receded for the time being. North Korea viewed South Korea’s decision to suspend operations at Kaesong complex amounts to “a declaration of war”.

Counter view

There is a counter view as well to North Korea’s act. For example, Gwynne Dyer in an article in The Japan Times dated 9 February 2016 called Pyongyang’s act as “rational deterrent”. Earlier, four rounds of UN military and economic sanctions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 did not deter Pyongyang and it went ahead with another test, ignoring such punishment. The questions that begs an answer is why such a poor isolated country spends such a lot of money on nuclear weapons and ICBMs to be in a position to strike its neighbour when necessary.

According to Dyer, It justifies its acts as it is committed to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in the region from the vicious US nuclear war scenario. North Korea proudly announced: “The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers that has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK. … By succeeding in the H-bomb test … the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states … and the Korean people demonstrated the spirit of a dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.” So, it fears a nuclear scenario and therefore felt the need to create a “most powerful nuclear deterrent”.

Does it mean that North Korea really fears a possible nuclear attack from the US? But the next following question that arises is: does possessing a nuclear/hydrogen bomb and ICBMs make it really safe? What looks most plausible to accept is, it wants to acquire these lethal arsenals purely as a defensive measure. Three generations of the Kim dynasty skilfully have ruled the country without starting a war but keeping the tensions always high. That the elder two Kims before the current rule probably understood how to avoid a war but can one say the current leader would not be devoid from such a path? There lies the risk. Since succeeding his father in 2011, Kim Jong-un has been struggling to consolidate his authority by resorting to purges, disappearances and execution of top key officials, latest being the serving Army Chief Ri Young Gil. Such frequent impetuous actions does not offer any sign that the Kim would not go reckless should he really feel insure at any point of time. Here lies the real danger of North Korea remaining a nuclear power as its possible misuse cannot be guaranteed.

The only hope lies in the fact that despite that North has already possessed a few nuclear weapons, its capacity to expand its arsenals remain limited because of technological deficiencies and therefore its capacity to strike Japan, South Korea and the US would remain limited. The real worry is North Korea is always striving for technological up-gradation and it has friends such as Pakistan and Iran to help and if it does not have the ability to miniaturise a weapon to put atop a missile as some analysts tells us to believe, the possibility to cross this hurdle cannot be ruled out sooner or later. However, should North Korea decide to launch a nuclear strike at any of the countries in its neighbourhood, the retaliation could be so massive that the entire country could virtually be exterminated and there could be no way North Korea could prevent that. Of course, the radiation in the aftermath of the bombing would leave generations in the Korean Peninsula affected. Does anyone welcome such an occurrence? The best that North Korea could develop or acquire from its friends would be enough for deterrent purpose and not actual use because Pyongyang is no fool not to measure the incalculable damage an irresponsible action would mean to its people and the nation.

A comparison of what Pakistan did in the 1980s and 1990s in the wake of India acquiring first nuclear weapons can be made in the North Korean case. This is because both India and Pakistan have maintained nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes and there has been no fear of escalation at the nuclear level despite of having acrimonious relations for the past 60+ years. Can one make such an argument in the North Korean case as the US would also have to pay some price in case nuclear weapons are used? Though the situations are different in both the cases, there could be some merit in this kind of argument. Dyer observes: “North Korea is not a crazy state plotting a nuclear holocaust at the cost of its own extinction. Its nuclear weapons program is a perfectly rational — although highly undesirable — policy for a small country with a big problem.” Yet, the world community is unlikely to buy such an argument as nuclear weapon does not serve any purpose for any country or any people.

Can more sanctions be effective?

The US Senate passed expansive sanctions targeting Pyongyang and its foreign suppliers and collaborators. But the truism is that decades of US policy on North Korea including sanctions have provided any remedy. Can it be any different this time? That seems unlikely to be the case. This time, the sanctions target North Korea’s trade in minerals and other activities that generate hard currency for the regime, and penalizes Chinese and other entities that work with Pyongyang. The US intension is to prevent commercial interests anywhere in the world that might help or helping the North acquire weapons and equipments and resources to support its weapon program. Democrat Robert Menendez observed: “Extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and unspeakable sexual violence are part of the ongoing story of this bizarre regime”. There seems to be a bit of frustration everywhere that the UN sanctions so far have been ineffective because of resistance by China to a robust international response. To make the sanctions effective, China needs to change its soft-paddling approach. That is not easy. China has its own strategic compulsions, as said before, and that stance is unlikely to change quickly. China is expected to come on the way for adopting tougher action in any forum. Kim Jong-un is just aware of Beijing’s vulnerability and is making best use of this.

Within the US, Obama’s leadership too came into question with some Republicans finding fault with his style of leadership. Senator John Cornyn observed: “It is absolutely the fact that in the absence of American leadership, tyrants, thugs and bullies feel emboldened.” Notwithstanding the differences between the Republicans and Democrats, the fact remains that no country either alone or collectively has been able to prevent the North Korean regime from continuing nuclear test, expand testing of ICBMs, develop its military power, develop cyber-warfare technologies and continuing rampant human rights abuse.

Restarting Plutonium Reactor

In the meantime there are reports that suggest that North Korea has started gathering plutonium from a restarted reactor. This means North Korea would get more fuel for nuclear weapons. North Korea is expanding its Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility as well as its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor. If this is correct, North Korea shall be in a position to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks. The facilities had initially been shut down in 2007 but Pyongyang vowed to restart the reactor following its third nuclear test on 2013. As mentioned earlier, North Korea is indulging in all these illegal activities for “deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy”. America’s worry has increased since Kim Jong-un took power four years ago as the unitary leader has been indulging in purges, executions, and leadership reshuffles to pursue his goals as demonstrated in November 2014 cyber attack on Sony, the August 2015 inter-Korean confrontation spurred by the North’s placement of landmines that injured two South Korean soldiers, the fourth nuclear test in January and rocket launch ion 7 February, besides other provocative acts.

What Next?

The implications of Pyongyang’s action are serious. The US, Japan and South Korea are alarmed at the turn of events. With the escalation of threat perception from the North, the US has obligations to protect the security of its two key Asian allies – Japan and South Korea. In response to North’s act, the US and South Korea jointly announced the possibility of deploying the American THAAD ballistic missile defense system. THAAD is an acronoym for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles during their final, or terminal, phase of the flight. It has proved effective against short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Japan is too considering THAAD to enhance its defences.

China, South Korea’s largest trade partner, lost no time in warning that the system’s presence in the South would be viewed as a threat to its security. China fears that the THAAD system could penetrate Chinese territory. The US, Japan and South Korea deployed Aegis destroyers and PAC-3 missile interceptors in case debris from the rocket hurtled towards them. China feels that introduction of missile defence system will escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region.

The US has responded to China’s concerns about THAAD, saying the system is defensive and focused on North Korea only. But since its planned deployment is closer to Chinese border, it has the potential to exacerbate strains stemming from territorial disputes involving China in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The situation is too complex and there does not seem to be easy solution in the horizon.

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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