BEIJING - The recent speculation about North Korea’s (DPRK) intention of launching a ballistic missile is causing widespread concern.
On November 24, the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo revealed that the South Korean military had detected North Korea transporting rocket components from its Pyongyang arsenal to its rocket launch site in the Northwest. The components are similar to those launched last April. It’s most likely that North Korea intends to launch another ballistic missile.
On November 27, the Yonhap News Agency of South Korea predicted that North Korea will launch a long-range missile in December or January. On the same day, Reuters noted that satellite images show significantly increased activity at the North Korean missile launch site. The media reports don’t seem to be groundless.
There are a number of reasons why North Korea is under pressure in the launching of a missile.
First, there has always been a competition between the two brother countries in the rocket launching business, though both have failed to succeed enough to claim victory. On Thursday, South Korea’s third attempt to launch the Naro carrier rocket was again pushed back due to technical problems.
Second, the international community, which doesn't criticize Seoul's rocket research, is firmly opposed to testing by North Korea, which it says is “playing a dirty trick" of launching a long-range ballistic missile in the name of launching a rocket.
Last month, when South Korea and America revised their Missile Agreement, Seoul was even able to extend the missile’s range from 300 to 800 kilometers, which did not arouse any reaction in neighboring countries. This double standard adds to North Korea's indignance. Their attempt at another rocket launching not only expresses their frustration, but also challenges unfair international standards.
In addition, South Korea’s presidential election is in full swing. To North Korea, whether Park Geun-Hye, the conservative New National Party candidate, or Moon Jae-In, who represents the progressive forces, wins the election, will have unusual significance.
During the administration of Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun, South Korea’s two former presidents, relations between the two Koreas eased somewhat. Not only did the two countries’ leaders meet, they also signed two historical documents, the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration and the October 4 Inter-Korea Summit Declaration. However, since Lee Myung-Bak came to office, inter-Korean relations are once again quite tense.
Though both the South Korean presidential candidates have promised to amend the current policy towards the DPRK, Pyongyang places no hope in Park Geun-Hye, who has been attacked repeatedly in the North Korean media.
There are limited means that Pyongyang can use to affect the South Korean election. Creating a certain tension by launching a satellite and create public dissatisfaction with the ruling party is one of the few cards it holds.
Turning on Obama?
Secondly, not just South Korea, but all countries involved in the Six-Party Talks (the two Koreas, US, China, Russia, Japan) have recently exercised or are about to exercise a change of leadership.
North Korea and the United States are a pair of quarrelsome lovers. Kim Jong-un may not like Obama much, but certainly he liked Romney even less. In its dealings with the Americans, the North has good memories of Bill Clinton's Democratic administration. Bill Clinton almost made it to be the first serving American president to visit the DPRK, whereas his Republican successor George W. Bush bluntly tagged North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil.”
However, since the premature end of North Korean’s agreement to freeze its nuclear work, and its ballistic missile launch attempt, President Obama has been heavily criticized at home and his government is in no hurry to exchange blows again with North Korea.
Yet Pyongyang, since Obama’s re-election, has been repeatedly trying to catch the U.S. President's attention. An article in the Rodong Sinmun last weekend has urged the United States to abandon its hostile policy towards North Korea. On the same day, another article from North Korea’s Central News Agency even suggested that as long as “America boldly gives up its political hostility to the DPRK, the peninsula’s nuclear issue could be resolved smoothly.”
And yet North Korea’s calls have not found an echo in the United States. At the just-concluded East Asia Summit, Obama did not even mention the country. This is why the firing of a rocket may be a lever to move forward the hesitant Pyongyang-Washington relation.
View from Beijing
But the primary obstacle actually comes from China. North Korea's satellite launch last April has damaged China-DPRK relations that had just started improving. Since 2009, China has been committed to the repair and strengthening of the two countries’ relations. It has even caused some discord in China’s rapport with South Korea.
Since North Korea announced its satellite launching program in April, China has adopted a different policy from that of the U.S. and South Korea of open disagreement, and has tried to work behind the scenes to persuade North Korea to change its mind. Unfortunately, North Korea hasn’t softened toward China. Beijing was finally forced to support the strongly worded statement of the United Nations Security Council.
North Korea has to understand that it has a special alliance with America. To improve its relations with the United States, it ought to improve its dealings with South Korea first.
Naturally, America faces another important obstacle. Since Obama won the election, he has been accelerating the implementation of America’s strategic rebalancing strategy toward Asia. His latest visit to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia reflected the U.S. strategic emphasis on small and medium-sized countries in the region, and has highlighted America’s attempt to strengthen relations with ASEAN countries.
While it takes a harder line on Iran's nuclear ambitions, for North Korea, the U.S. will instead opt for an approach of “ignoring” plus “waiting.” If North Korea fires a rocket, it will probably force the United States to change its policy back to the old “containing” plus “waiting,” which is what North Korea is trying to avoid.
In conclusion, Pyongyang has once again attempted to "make ripples in the pond" with its plans for a new rocket launch. The attempt has pros and cons, and logic says it will do more harm than good. But North Korea is not a nation typically driven by common sense.