Spotlight shifts to rocket concerns

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


While more than 50 world leaders gather in Seoul this week for only the second Nuclear Security Summit, talk is expected to be dominated by one figure who won't even be in the room - North Korea's young new leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim's decision a week ago to launch a rocket next month to celebrate the 100th birthday of his late grandfather and founder of North Korea's communist dynasty, Kim Il-sung, has effectively moved the spotlight away from the official agenda.

The decision, officially to launch a satellite into orbit, has worried China, infuriated the US, scared Japan and angered South Korea - coming just weeks after a deal between Washington and Pyongyang that promises food aid in return for an end to nuclear weapons test and military provocations. Pyongyang has also agreed to allow international nuclear inspectors, expelled three years ago, back into the country.

South Korean officials believe the move is further evidence that Kim, who in his late 20s, is closely following in the footsteps of his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December. 'He is showing he has been trained well - he's working off the manuals that his father left him,' said one senior South Korean official.

'It is exactly the kind of frustrating and provocative manoeuvre his father would have made to try to keep us all off-balance.'

Other officials said matters could have been worse, given rumours a month ago that Pyongyang might be planning a third nuclear weapons test to express anger at Seoul's hosting of the summit.

Japan is preparing its missile defence batteries to shoot down the rocket if it threatens the country, despite Pyongyang insisting it is merely part of a peaceful space development programme.

The North has previously faced UN Security Council condemnation for such launches, with some nations fearing they are, in fact, ballistic missile tests. Japan said it detected no satellite launch after a similar event in 2009, insisting that it was a long-range missile fired over Japan. As it refines its nuclear warheads from its stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium, North Korea is also attempting to master long-range missile strikes.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - a former South Korean foreign minister with long experience of North Korean issues - is expected to raise the looming launch when the summit opens tomorrow while President Hu Jintao and his US counterpart Barack Obama are expected to discuss it when they meet in private on the sidelines on Tuesday.

Foreign Ministry officials repeatedly warned last week that Beijing had expressed its 'concerns and worries' to North Korean counterparts while some mainland scholars have said the launch had apparently taken Beijing by surprise. Despite those concerns, Hu is expected to face pressure for a harder line against its ally from Obama.

Obama arrives in Seoul this morning and will travel to the De-militarised Zone - the heavily fortified border that has split the two Koreas since the truce that ended the Korean conflict in 1953.

'We certainly hope and recommend that China will bring all the instruments of power to bear to influence the decision-making in North Korea,' said Daniel Russel, head of Asia policy in the National Security Council. Otherwise, he warned, the North Koreans will 'deepen their isolation'.

The situation reflects what organisers admit is the relatively low expectations that surround the summit. Individual states' nuclear programmes - such as the controversial efforts by North Korea and Iran - are not on the formal agenda. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak invited the North to the summit last year - but made the invitation conditional on efforts for Pyongyang to declare and account for its nuclear efforts.

Pyongyang has intensified its anti-summit rhetoric, saying any specific mention of its nuclear programme during the event would amount to a 'declaration of war'.

The two-day summit will officially review and expand on efforts to keep loose nuclear material, such as highly-enriched uranium, from falling into the hands of terrorists.