North Korea

Don't overreact to North Korea missile launch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 4:10am

Regional tensions over South China Sea territorial disputes have distracted attention from North Korea. The reclusive nuclear state has reminded the world that it is still a volatile element in the mix by announcing a rocket launch between December 10 and 22. Ostensibly it is to place a satellite in orbit, but the US and its allies Japan and Korea have condemned it as a disguised long-range missile test that violates UN resolutions - triggered by previous nuclear tests - and defies a Security Council warning that it is "extremely inadvisable".

The announcement has set off a familiar pattern, with analysts warning of a high-stakes game of international brinkmanship and China, Pyongyang's only major ally, expressing hopes that "relevant parties can act in a way that is more conducive to the stability of the Korean peninsula". That resonates with political sensitivity in Japan, facing a general election on December 16, and South Korea, which is to elect a new president on December 19. China itself is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that will not be complete until March and a re-elected US president is preparing a second administration that will include a new secretary of state. Meanwhile, the six-nation talks under the auspices of China on the nuclear disarmament of North Korea remain stalled, amid concerns that Pyongyang may conduct its third nuclear test. That is considered more likely if North Korea faces even more unilateral or multilateral sanctions.

The launch window also coincides with the first anniversary of youthful leader Kim Jong-un's assumption of power following the death of his father. There were hopes that a third generation of the Kim dynasty would have a bolder vision than decades of rule of a poor, hungry, nuclear state with a standing army of more than one million. It may be too soon to rule it out. The rocket launch is a legacy project from his father Kim Jong-il, following a failed attempt in April. And Kim has apparently been consolidating his power by flexing his muscle in the armed forces, where he has replaced military and defence chiefs. Moreover, using threats to regional security to leverage foreign concessions is a standard North Korean ploy. A successful launch will have consequences, but Beijing's counsel to its negotiating partners not to over-react is wise. Persuasion and dialogue remain the best hopes of lasting progress in bringing North Korea in from the cold, and China's six-party forum remains the best place to pursue them.