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North Korea's Big Test

The missile flopped, but diplomacy must not.

Wade L. Huntley 10 Jul

Wade L. Huntley is Director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.

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Taepodong-2: Seriously?

North Korea's missile tests triggered condemnations from capitals worldwide and may soon be taken up by the UN Security Council. But do these launches really represent an escalation of North Korea's threat to global security?

The answer is both yes and no.

First the facts. The launch of the long-range Taepodong-2 had been anticipated for weeks; the United States and Japan had already threatened dire consequences if North Korea followed through. While its estimated range includes Alaska, the rocket had never been tested, and Tuesday's failure early in its flight offers no evidence it's ready for prime time. The 1998 test of the medium-range Taepodong-1 was more successful, overflying Japan before failing in its third stage. North Korea has successfully developed and deployed the shorter-range Nodong missile, also tested on Tuesday. But the accuracy and reliability of these missiles remains suspect.

North Korea almost certainly has enough fissile material for six to 10 nuclear weapons and has probably fashioned at least one explosive device. The 1994 agreement with the United States freezing North Korea's nuclear program collapsed at the end of 2002, freeing constraints on expanding these capabilities. But North Korea is not known to have conducted a nuclear test and is not likely to have yet fashioned a nuclear warhead small, light and durable enough to ride any of its missiles.

In short, a credible North Korean nuclear threat to North America is a long way off. British Columbia is safe. So why all the fuss?

Sooner or later

First, left unchecked, North Korea is likely to develop these capabilities eventually. While this prospect may be at least a decade away, uncertainty over North Korea's technological prowess shortens the "worst-case" estimates.

Second, North Korea's missiles can now reach Japan, a core Western ally; and North Korea continues to sustain considerable conventional capabilities, including thousands of artillery tubes at the demilitarized zone within 50 kilometres of Seoul, South Korea's capital. North Korea has little rational reason to unleash these forces offensively; but their existence is threatening nevertheless.

Most importantly, though, the missile tests are a demonstration of Pyongyang's sustained will and current mood. While the North Korean regime does not respond predictably to either confrontation or overtures, its one consistent behaviour over the past 15 years has been to act provocatively whenever engagement is stalled and U.S. interests are focused elsewhere. Such has been the circumstance this spring.

Skilled diplomatic brinkmanship has borne fruit. The 1998 missile test deepened short-term tensions but got Washington's attention: resuscitated engagement led to North Korea's 1999 unilateral moratorium on missile tests, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang in 2000, and negotiations (not concluded) to eliminate North Korea's missile program entirely. With such engagement shunned by the more hostile Bush administration, Pyongyang exercised a more aggressive brinkmanship, breaking out of the nuclear freeze agreement just as Washington was gearing up for war with Iraq, thereby maximizing prospects for minimal U.S. response.

Frantic gesticulations

Similar conditions prevail now. A renewed engagement effort in 2005 through the so-called "Six-Party Talks" led to a "statement of agreed principles" in September, but when that consensus proved fleeting, the Bush administration retreated to a posture of slow siege, applying economic and political pressure where it could (such as on counterfeiting operations) but resisting direct engagement. Meanwhile, the Pyongyang regime has undoubtedly noticed how Iran, skilfully following North Korea's own playbook, has parlayed a far less advanced nuclear program into increasing attention and sweetened offers. A new provocation was almost inevitable.

North Korea's frantic gesticulations do demand attention. The question is not how seriously to take the missile tests, but rather how to take them seriously. Knee-jerk counter-threats and aggressive posturing hardly answer the need. Indeed, the compounding failure of the recent policies of the United States and its allies must be a principal focal point.

Many Bush officials came to power highly critical of their predecessors' 1994 deal with North Korea, convinced it was giving up too much for too little, and were at best ambivalent to that deal's subsequent collapse. But they have now presided over North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expelling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, recommencing nuclear fuel reprocessing, declaring itself to be nuclear armed, and breaching its moratorium on missile tests -- in effect giving up much more for much less.

The call by ex-Clinton defence officials Ashton Carter and William Perry for a pre-emptive U.S. attack on the Taepodong expressed a frustration with the ineffectualness of current U.S. policy as much as with North Korea itself. This restiveness is increasingly shared by knowledgeable Republicans in both houses of the U.S. Congress, some of whom have renounced the Bush Administration's refusal to meet North Korea directly. But what would a fresh approach entail?

New approach needed

A first step is to recognize clearly that the collapse of the 1994 nuclear freeze agreement allowed North Korea to cross key thresholds in its ambitions: what had been a national proliferation problem has metastasized into a regional security problem with important economic, energy and social dimensions. Previously, solving the North Korean nuclear issue has been seen as a way to catalyze greater East Asian regional security co-operation; now, such co-operation is a prerequisite. Abating North Korea's nuclear ambitions requires, more than ever, grappling with the "hermit kingdom's" long-term regional role.

From a human security perspective, this also means facing honestly the difficult dilemmas posed by the poverty and oppression millions endure just because they happen to live on the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula. Neither human rights resolutions nor unqualified food aid are long-term answers -- this imperative compels a comprehensive solution.

An immediate need is for the United States and China to find an enduring common ground. And, indeed, the missile tests may make China more amenable to U.S. calls for more coercive pressures. Decision-makers in Beijing are no doubt frustrated and angry, not least because Tuesday's launches (as in 1998) will bolster support for U.S.-Japan missile defence co-operation many Chinese regard as really aimed at them. The tests were also a slap in the face, coming on the heels of the announcement that China and North Korea would soon exchange top-level visits.

Change the rules

But U.S. and Chinese concerns in Korea are far from convergent; in particular, Beijing won't support actions aimed at "regime change" in Pyongyang. In Washington, though, the missile tests are likely to reinforce hardline positions that view regime change -- through either pressure or patience -- as a necessary prerequisite to a final solution. Many of this persuasion are also most vocal in concerns over a "rising China." Hence, the further ascendance of this approach will tend to push China farther from, rather than closer to, U.S. positions on North Korea, neutralizing the effect of the missile tests themselves. Less directly involved states, such as Canada, can play important roles to smooth these frictions in U.S.-China co-ordination.

Another pressing need is to find a way to sustain meaningful direct engagement between North Korea and the United States. If current diplomatic postures prevent this from happening through the front door, it should be pursued around the back. Canada, with both diplomatic ties to Pyongyang and a trusted voice in Washington, is uniquely situated to facilitate such contacts.

What is not needed are more grandiose overstatements of the threat North Korea currently poses or more chest-pounding warnings of further dire consequences to follow. That's North Korea's game. It's time to change the rules.

Wade L. Huntley is Director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.  [Tyee]

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