BEIJING – Rising tensions over North Korea’s planned rocket launch next week are expected to dominate the agenda when Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba meets with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts Sunday in China.
Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul likely will agree to continue calling on Pyongyang to show restraint up to the very last minute, but will also discuss coordination with other countries if the launch goes ahead.
They remain cautious about stronger action, however, mindful that when the U.N. Security Council condemned a 2009 rocket launch by the North, it responded by conducting a nuclear test and pulling out of six-nation talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
To complicate matters further, some analysts are speculating that Japan and South Korea could find themselves at odds with China — a major benefactor of North Korea — over how to deal with the rocket launch, given Beijing’s previous reluctance to condemn Pyongyang at the Security Council.
North Korea appears determined to proceed with the launch of what it claims is an earth observation satellite between April 12 and 16.
During the trilateral talks Sunday in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo, Genba and South Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Sung Hwan, are expected to urge China to increase its efforts to prevent the launch.
Following a March 29 meeting in Beijing with Wu Dawei, China’s representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, said Japan will keep strongly urging North Korea to exercise self-restraint.
He also called on China to take similar action.
But Sugiyama declined to say whether Beijing views Pyongyang’s rocket launch as violating Security Council resolutions slapped on the North, including Resolution 1874 that bans Pyongyang from conducting any launch using ballistic missile technology.
Chinese analysts say that while Beijing is aware the launch would violate Resolution 1874, it will not condemn it in public to avoid provoking Pyongyang.
“China believes that if North Korea launches a satellite for whatever reason, it is in violation of Security Council Resolution 1874,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
“We have worries and concerns,” Shi said in a recent interview.
“But we are not in the same position as the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, who can publicly declare that North Korea is in violation of the resolution,” Shi said.
Citing “warmer ties” between China and North Korea since 2009 and Beijing’s desire to maintain stability in its neighbor, Shi voiced doubts that China would agree to condemn the launch or tighten sanctions on Pyongyang if the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries referred the case to the Security Council.
China’s influence over the North is limited in any event, experts say, especially over the rocket launch.
The move is intended as a demonstration of North Korea’s strength and scientific progress, as well as a celebration to mark the centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth and the new regime of Kim Jong Un.
North Korea claims the planned satellite launch is for the peaceful development and use of space, arguing that is a legitimate and universally recognized right of every sovereign state.
But Tokyo, Washington and Seoul suspect this is just cover to test long-range ballistic missile technologies.
Military experts say similar technologies can be applied to ICBMs to provide a delivery system for a nuclear weapon, should the North ever manage to produce nuclear warheads.
“Kim Jong Un has domestic factors (to consider). You have to understand that,” Shi said. “Otherwise it is difficult to interpret what happened in just two weeks” between a deal the North struck with the United States in late February and its announcement of a rocket launch.
Washington argues the launch will jeopardize the deal, under which Pyongyang would implement a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid.
The Choson Sinbo newspaper, printed by the pro-North General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), suggested Wednesday that Pyongyang may even carry out a third nuclear test depending on the international community’s response to the planned rocket launch.
GSDF to lock and load
In an unprecedented move, Ground Self-Defense Force units will carry sidearms and rifles when guarding a Patriot antimissile battery deployed in advance of North Korea’s planned rocket launch next week, according to senior Defense Ministry officials.
It will be the first time Self-Defense Forces personnel have carried loaded arms outside their bases in Japan while functioning as security guards.
The order applies to GSDF personnel guarding the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor deployed on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture.
The officials said the ministry will allow the GSDF to carry weapons because security at the site is low compared with existing SDF bases.
The other Patriot batteries deployed for the North Korean launch are at SDF facilities.