N Korean launch threatens to fire up regional arms race

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2012, 12:00am


Tensions have heightened drastically in East Asia over North Korean plans to launch a satellite-laden rocket in the next few days, despite pleas and protests by friend and foe alike.

The launch, described by Pyongyang as a peaceful space project, will be the climax of celebrations for the centenary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. But the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea believe it will be a disguised long-range missile test, given the technology's potential dual use.

The planned launch has pointed to a false start in the new reign in Pyongyang, after Kim Jong-un assumed power in a dynastic succession in December.

In stark contrast to a widely expected economic focus, Pyongyang's policy since then has put guns over butter. Despite critical food shortages, the astronomically priced satellite launch will be used to rally domestic support for the new Kim, violating UN Security Council resolutions. It will also breach a February deal with the US, under which North Korea agreed to halt nuclear activities and missile tests in exchange for US food aid.

Apparently, North Korea is now acting more recklessly and becoming more unpredictable. But Pyongyang will never obtain the security or global endorsements it craves through belligerence and provocations, and will only make itself more isolated.

The planned launch will trigger a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Some Asian airlines are changing flight paths to avoid the proposed launch trajectory. Japan has deployed Pac-3 missiles in Tokyo and Okinawa, as well as Aegis destroyers in surrounding waters, to intercept the North Korean rocket if its territories are threatened. The Russian military will also monitor the rocket's flight.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said on Sunday that Beijing was troubled by North Korea's satellite launch plan. In fact, the launch site is only 50 kilometres from the China-North Korea border. Beijing's failure to dissuade its ally from the launch shows that its influence over Pyongyang is not absolute. China's goals on the peninsula are maintaining stability and denuclearisation, but now these will be even harder to realise.

China fears the launch will spark an arms race in East Asia and boost plans for the US' regional missile defence system. The plan involves two sets of trilateral dialogues - one with Japan and Australia and the other with Japan and South Korea.

The North Korean launch will undoubtedly prompt Japan to further military ties with the US and South Korea to become involved in the missile defence system. In other words, North Korea's provocation will pave the way for a US military pivot to Asia. Thus, from a Chinese perspective, Pyongyang is acting in a way that threatens China's core security interest. The rocket launch might be a watershed in the relationship between the two.

Furthermore, signs indicate that North Korea might conduct another nuclear test following the launch, repeating what it did in 2009. Given the implications of the North Korean act on Iran's nuclear programme, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is rattling the nerves of people around the world.

In response to the launch announcement, the US dropped plans last month to provide food aid for North Korea. Should the launch go ahead, Washington will certainly take the matter to the UN Security Council, of which the US has the rotating presidency this month. While Beijing fears tougher sanctions will lead to the collapse of North Korea, China has to show through action that it wants to stop Pyongyang's intimidation of international society.

When attending the nuclear security summit in Seoul last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama agreed to co-ordinate closely in responding to the rocket launch. The co-operation between Beijing and Washington is the key to defusing the imminent crisis to prevent it from becoming full-blown chaos.

Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington DC. tangletters@gmail.com