Politics attached to provocation: experts

by Hiroko Nakata and Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

More brinkmanship or a calculated test of the international community’s resolve?

North Korea’s test launches of seven missiles Wednesday triggered a range of speculation by foreign-policy experts here.

Analysts said the launches might be a test of the international community’s position on Pyongyang’s nuclear arms threat, while others said North Korea might be trying to pressure the United States to lift damaging economic sanctions.

However, the experts agreed the North will have realized ahead of the launches that it will now face further international isolation, but will still expect China and South Korea to remain friendly.

Masao Okonogi, a professor at Keio University who specializes in North and South Korean politics, said Pyongyang’s launches were to get Washington to the negotiating table to talk about lifting its economic sanctions, which Pyongyang is reportedly suffering from.

“It is just the first scene in a long-term scenario for North Korea. I expect more important scenes will come in the future,” Okonogi said.

He expects Pyongyang to increase its pressure on the U.S. to end sanctions by test-firing or preparing to test-fire more missiles ahead of the U.S. midterm election in November and the presidential election in 2008.

North Korea wants the launches to make U.S. Congress angry at President George W. Bush and to blame him for not holding direct talks with the North, said Shinya Kato, acting director of the editorial department at Radio Press, a Tokyo-based group that monitors North Korean radio and TV programs.

“North Korea found its bluff with the U.S. did not work. So it took action despite all the possible disadvantages,” Kato said.

None of the experts knew why Pyongyang chose Wednesday to fire the missiles, although it was widely reported the launches came just before the space shuttle Discovery was launched from Florida and occurred on U.S. Independence Day.

They said it will be important to watch how China and South Korea, which has condemned the missile tests, will react if the U.S. and Japan persuade the international community to impose economic sanctions on North Korea.

“It is possible North Korea expects the two countries not join hand in hand with Japan and the U.S. to implement economic sanctions,” said Keio University’s Okonogi.

The U.N. Security Council was to hold a meeting later Wednesday to discuss the launches and the U.S. is expected to press for economic sanctions.

Yasuhiko Yoshida, professor at Osaka University of Economics and Law and an expert in North and South Korean issues, said Pyongyang may have predicted the Security Council meeting and approached China and Russia before the launches to ask them to abstain from any sanctions vote in the top U.N. body.

“China and Russia back North Korea to stand against the U.S., and North Korea must have calculated all of this beforehand,” Yoshida said.

With these latest launches, the experts said there is very little chance that talks will be able to advance between Japan and North Korean on normalizing relations.