Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

Time to stop rewarding contemptuous behaviour

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 April, 2009, 12:00am

The North Korean missile test raises a critical question. Why should anyone consider giving aid to those people when they squander hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars by firing off missiles and fabricating nuclear weapons?

Here's an impoverished country, the single biggest recipient of aid from the World Food Programme, where half the people are underfed if not starving, many of them suffering from diseases of every conceivable variety, hundreds of thousands consigned under unspeakable conditions to a vast prison system, and world leaders wonder whether to ply them with billions more.

Such thinking is not only ridiculous; it has no chance of working.

It's mind-boggling to imagine any one could have fallen for North Korea's promises yet again, but, nearly three years ago, there was Christopher Hill, the US nuclear envoy at the time, falling for the claim North Korea would abide by its latest agreements to give up its nukes and missiles after the North went ahead and conducted an underground nuclear test. No way, of course, would North Korea abide by the promises made in 2007, much less destroy or surrender the six to 12 warheads it's already made. The latest evidence, as everyone knows, was the test flight on Sunday of a Taepodong-2 missile that's got a range of at least 3,200km.

Oh sure, the North Koreans went through an elaborate exercise of claiming the missile was really a two-stage booster rocket assembly from which a communications satellite would loft into orbit. That was the same claim they made in 1998 when they fired a Taepodong-1 in much the same trajectory over northern Japan. North Korea claimed then, as now, that the missile had shot a satellite into space from which wafted patriotic paeans to Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung, 'eternal president'.

It's very dubious if the attachment picked up by satellite imagery at the tip of the missile while poised on the launch pad was anything like a satellite. Far more likely, North Koreans were bamboozling the world in a shell game that would be funny if the implications were not so deadly.

There's plenty of evidence that North Koreans are by now pretty good at building missiles. They are also well known to have made nuclear warheads. No one has ever heard or seen any signs they were building a satellite.

The world seems to have fallen for this game without question. So far, nobody's actually wondered whether that attachment was a real satellite, or a model pieced together from cardboard, plastic and tin foil.

One would have thought by now that a legion of 'experts', engineers and scientists, would have looked carefully and realised there was something suspicious about the protrusion they saw on that missile while it was safely on the pad. Satellite technology is believed to have come from Iran, North Korea's partner on missiles and nuclear know-how. If the Iranians could launch a satellite, then why not the North Koreans? Think about it, and the answer is obvious: they didn't have one to launch.

So we're left with only one reason for Sunday's test. As the Americans, Japanese and Koreans have been telling us, the satellite story was a cover for the desire to test the Taepodong-2, which had fizzled in the previous attempt at launching it in July 2006. So now what? US President Barack Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak both talk about 'stern' countermeasures, but they don't say what. Nobody imagines a military response. Most analysts think the only way to go is to return to six-party talks.

Negotiations are well and good, if basically unproductive. When they do get to the table the negotiators should make one point clear: whatever happens, you don't get any more aid. That would be the sternest - and most effective - penalty the other parties to the talks could inflict.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals