Rocket launch demands renewed six-party push

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 April, 2009, 12:00am

A nation's launch of a communications satellite should not normally warrant condemnation. North Korea is no ordinary country, though, so its firing yesterday of a rocket must be denounced in the strongest possible terms. The action was taken despite UN Security Council resolutions forbidding it and against the wishes of its allies and rivals. Disapproving words are worthless without action; every effort must now be made to pull the regime back into talks to eliminate its threat to global peace and stability.

Rockets and missiles are one and the same. North Korea has for more than a decade threatened neighbouring Japan and South Korea with its short- and long-range missile tests. In 2006 the isolated and unpredictable nation claimed to have successfully put a satellite into orbit and, months later, exploded a nuclear device. It cannot under any circumstances be allowed to move to the logical next stage: launching a nuclear warhead atop its long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.

A tough resolution from the Security Council, the world body designated to deal with such provocative behaviour, should be forthcoming. Japan, South Korea and the US want additional sanctions. Their inability to organise a common approach towards such measures with permanent members and North Korean allies China and Russia makes this unlikely. A far better mechanism would therefore be the six-party talks convened by Beijing to persuade Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear programme.

Those discussions have been stalled since December. North Korea is a skilful and cunning negotiator. A wait-and-see approach has been adopted while US President Barack Obama settles into his job and searches for a policy towards North Korea. Pyongyang, as in 1998 with a missile test and again in 2006, has now upped the ante.

Mr Obama's hand has been forced. He condemned the test, as did Japan and South Korea. But China and Russia were less strident, offering only lukewarm responses. If Pyongyang's weapons proliferation is to be halted, a co-ordinated effort is necessary.

North Korea is still technically at war with the South and the US, having never signed a peace pact to end the 1950-53 Korean war. It says its weapons are for self-defence. A standoff continues with Japan over its colonial-era occupation of the Korean Peninsula and the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped during the 1980s. But North Korea's weak economy and rampant hunger and poverty give it ample opportunity to use its missile and nuclear programmes to gain international benefits. These incentives, in the form of financial aid and fuel oil, are the backbone of the six-party discussions.

The missile launch has been cleverly timed. Internationally, it comes as the world grapples with economic turmoil. Mr Obama is reshaping the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and so far has centred on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Domestically, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is trying to shore up his position after a reported stroke late last year. On Thursday, he will be confirmed for the third time as the chairman of the National Defence Commission, the country's highest governing body.

Efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear proliferation have been waning. Attention is now firmly back on the issue and it must remain there regardless of the other challenges the world faces. China again has to take the lead, but this time a more robust effort has to be taken by all involved in the nuclear talks. We must move away from the dangerous juncture that has been arrived at.