Here we go again: coaxing the North to shoot straight

by Ralph Cossa

HONOLULU — North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is a hard person to like; he is even a harder person to ignore. At a time when the rest of the world would prefer to focus its attention elsewhere, the North Korean leader is trying his best to shine the spotlight on the one area of the world where the global financial crisis matters little, his own already failed state.

I’m talking about Kim’s announced intention — in the face of several still valid United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions in 2006 demanding otherwise — to soon conduct a “satellite launch” using Pyongyang’s newest long-range ballistic missile, an action that all others are calling a barely disguised missile test.

Some would add the seizure of two newswomen to this list of attention- getting devices; I do not. I’m inclined to believe that the hugely paranoid Kim probably believes his own press statements accusing the journalists of being spies. If anything, he likely sees this incident as a test of his resolve, even as his announced satellite launch appears aimed at testing the resolve of others.

(It would perhaps be too harsh to opine that the two ladies deserved what happened to them by being so recklessly careless so close — or, according to some report, over — the North Korean border, but they have clearly made a bad situation worse and merit little of the international sympathy they appear to be gaining.)

The missile launch drama has played out over a couple months now, since intelligence sources originally reported seeing launch preparations under way at the North’s ballistic missile test facility shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama was inaugurated. This impending missile activity (scheduled between April 4-8) has prompted calls in Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere to shoot down the missile, or destroy it on the launchpad before it can be fired, given its potential threat to Japan and to locations as far away as the Hawaiian Islands or Alaska.

Let me add that, as a Hawaii resident, I lose little sleep over the prospects of a North Korean missile attack. Given that the assessed accuracy of North Korea’s long-range missiles is estimated at plus or minus 100 km, even if the North was foolish and suicidal enough to try to shoot a missile at Hawaii, it would pose a much greater danger to our migrating whales than to my downtown condominium.

The Japanese have more reason to be concerned not just because they are closer and thus have almost no time to assess the true nature and direction of any launch — and have been more directly targeted by vehement North Korean tirades — but also because many fear that even a legitimate satellite launch could very well result in missile components falling on Japanese territory. Pyongyang has announced that the first-stage booster rockets will splash down in a “danger area” within 120 kilometers of Japan; second-phase boosters are expected to land in the middle of the Pacific halfway between Japan and Hawaii).

As a result, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force plans to deploy two Aegis missile-equipped destroyers armed with interceptor missiles to the Sea of Japan in anticipation of a North Korean missile launch. While Japan has no capability to preemptively strike the missile on its launching pad, a senior Japanese defense official has stated: “We would have no other choice but to intercept” if the missile appeared to present a direct threat to Japan. Whether they would be successful or not is, of course, another story, but it could provide target practice for Japan’s Aegis- equipped ships.

I am NOT advocating an attempt to shoot down a rocket in the process of launching a satellite, only stating a possible response to falling debris or an errant missile that threatens Japan.

Nor does the United States, which does have the capability to preempt, apparently have the intent to shoot down a North Korean rocket at this stage of the game. Instead, Washington keeps reminding Pyongyang that such actions could have serious consequences.

Pyongyang’s reaction to such threats has been considerably less nuanced. “If the enemies recklessly opt for intercepting our satellite, our revolutionary armed forces will launch without hesitation a just retaliatory strike operation not only against all the interceptor means involved but against [U.S., Japan, and ROK] strongholds,” the North Korean general staff said in a statement, further asserting that “shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean war.”

For good measure, they have also threatened to walk away from the six-party talks if the UNSC responds negatively to their satellite launch. These negotiations, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., and aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, appear hopelessly stalled at present but still represent the best — albeit incredibly slim — chance of achieving this noble objective.

That Pyongyang seems intent on launching its missile seems clear; what’s less clear are Kim Jong Il’s motives. The probability that this could very well force a hardening of the current more flexible U.S. position toward direct negotiations with Pyongyang seems to have escaped him completely. Or, perhaps, he believes that such confrontational behavior will — as all too often in the past — increase rather than decrease the prospects for dialogue on his terms. At a minimum, he is once again successfully diverting attention away from the real problem at hand, which is dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability.

The North’s bellicose behavior is potentially counterproductive. Why would any country think it in its interest to be the first to test the resolve of a new administration, especially one in the process of reviewing its policy toward your nation? But it is hardly surprising, given the tepid response to past provocative actions.

In truth, the mere announcement of a planned missile launch, even with a satellite attached, represents a bigger challenge and test of resolve for the UNSC and its permanent members than for the U.S. alone. Absent two stern UNSC resolutions, North Korea would have as much right to launch satellites, or even test missiles, as South Korea, India, the U.S. or anyone else. But this is not the case.

Pyongyang’s 2006 missile launches and nuclear test prompted UNSCR 1695 and 1718, respectively. These “demanded” a halt to all ballistic missile activity; the second even authorized Chapter 7 enforcement mechanisms in the case of noncompliance, but with the caveat that only “measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions” and even then only after additional UNSC consultation. This is hardly a deterrent.

Nor have the “mandatory” actions — which prohibited the export to North Korea of military hardware and “luxury goods” — been aggressively implemented by neighboring countries (China, Russia, and even South Korea). They continue to provide Pyongyang a lifeline with few if any strings attached.

Incredibly, there is not even consensus among the major actors as to whether this announced satellite launch violates the U.N. sanctions. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul say it does; Beijing and Moscow seem less sure. What part of the phrase “shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program” don’t they understand? Even a cursory reading of the two resolutions reveals that “all” means “all,” including “launch[ing] an object propelled by a missile.”

If the UNSC really wants to influence Kim Jong Il’s behavior and restore some of its own shaky credibility, it should remove this ambiguity by stating in advance that even a satellite launch violates the UNSC resolutions and thus will subject Pyongyang to “additional measures.” It would even more helpful if they could unanimously decide — and then privately but convincingly relay to Pyongyang — what punitive measures will be put in place should the North proceed with its illegal launch.

It may be too late at this point to deter Pyongyang from proceeding with its missile launch, but agreement by the UNSC in advance as to the illegal nature of this action, and some initial consultation regarding consequences to be employed when this latest slap in the face of the U.N. takes place, will help change the North’s proceeding under the assumption that its confrontational policies serve its best interests and divide rather than unite those who need to speak with one voice in countering such behavior.

If we can’t persuade Pyongyang that we are serious when it comes to enforcing UNSC resolutions, how will we ever compel the North to honor its own, and our collectively agreed upon, denuclearization commitments.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (pacforum@hawaii.rr.com), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. This article appeared in PacNet Newsletter.