North Korea Plans Missile Launch

North Korea recently announced that it will launch a rocket between Apr. 4 and 8.  The North Korean government claims that it is putting a satellite into orbit, but the effort has clear military implications because a rocket capable of taking a satellite into space could also be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  American officials believe that such an ICBM could reach Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the west coast of the continental US.  North Korea is believed to have tested a nuclear device in 2006, so deploying an ICBM could enable the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name) to strike the US with a nuclear warhead, assuming that North Korean scientists could successfully fuse the two technologies.


On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “I don’t know anyone at the senior level of American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.”


Launching the rocket would violate a UN Security Council resolution that bars North Korea from testing missiles.  American, Japanese and South Korean officials have condemned the North’s decision, but they have no intention of taking military action to prevent the launch or to shoot down the missile in flight unless it appears that all or part of it is heading towards their territory.  Aegis radar-equipped destroyers from all three countries are moving into place to track the missile.


The North Koreans have taken other provocative actions at a time when the Obama administration has demonstrated a willingness to engage with the isolated regime.  On March 17, two American journalists were captured in North Korea and are still being held there.  Yesterday, a South Korean worker at a border town was arrested and charged with “denouncing the North’s political system and corrupting North Korean female workers in a plot to persuade them to defect to the South,” according to a spokesman from South Korea’s Unification Ministry.


Some believe that North Korea’s belligerent behavior is an attempt to improve its bargaining position before possible negotiations with the US and its allies.  However, such actions could backfire if it convinces other powers that the North will continue to be hostile and violate international agreements.  It is difficult to know if the Kim Jong-Il regime is simply out of touch with the rest of the world, or if it trying to appear unreasonable and thereby dissuade other countries from attacking it or harming it in some other way.


At this point, the international community can do little to punish North Korea besides imposing additional economic sanctions on the communist state, but Kim Jong-Il has demonstrated that he is fairly unconcerned with the economic welfare of his people so it is unlikely that further sanctions will affect his behavior.  The US and its partners can offer diplomatic and economic incentives to the North in hopes that such things will modify that nation’s policies and improve the security situation in East Asia, but it is uncertain if Kim Jong-Il’s regime will adhere to any agreements in the long term. 


The Obama administration has no good options right now, but it appears that engaging the DPRK is the only policy that has any chance of success.  Efforts to isolate and pressure North Korea have repeatedly failed and would likely fail in the future.  There are reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects of any effort to work with the North Koreans, but the costs of engagement are relatively minor so it is worth trying.


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