[Overseas View] Rocket launch has flip side

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[Overseas View] Rocket launch has flip side

Though generating considerable attention, the test by North Korea of a long-range rocket is not likely to turn into a major international crisis. The actual event seemed almost anticlimactic, given the tremendous advance publicity and the relatively unimpressive performance.

The Taepodong-2 missile fell into the ocean after passing over Japan. The device, dubbed Unha-2 by Pyongyang, is an improved version of one used in an earlier such test in July 2006. On that occasion, the projectile crashed not far from the launch site after a flight of less than a minute.

Sensitive Aegis radar on U.S. warships tracking the launch have not found evidence a satellite was put into orbit, though that was the declared intent. At the same time, the missile did not have the steep upward trajectory that would characterize a ballistic attack vehicle. There has been speculation this type of missile could reach Alaska or Hawaii, but the range demonstrated this time fell considerably short of that.

Those on the front line of diplomacy most directly affected by the launch - in particular South Korea, Japan and the United States - have reacted with restraint. The extreme nature of North Korea’s behavior may reinforce the role of the United Nations as well as bring greater solidarity to the states involved in the fitful six-party talks with North Korea.

Without doubt, the launch is a major benchmark in the recent deterioration of relations with North Korea. Last fall, the Bush administration removed North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to disable a key nuclear facility. That administration also gave renewed emphasis to the six-party talks involving China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the two Koreas. This represented a dramatic reversal from earlier emphasis on unilateralism, and provided an important diplomatic foundation for the successor administration of President Barack Obama.

The high stakes involved are self-evident. The three-year Korean War which began in 1950 took at least 1 million lives, and probably far more, brought American and Chinese forces in direct combat and devastated the Korean Peninsula.

In U.S. politics, the conflict demolished public support for the Truman administration and fed a growing and very intense anti-communist sentiment directed at enemies within as well as outside the country. Another war would again cost a great many lives, devastate the Koreas and might involve nuclear weapons.

Given the economic conditions in the North, financial pressure may prove especially useful in bringing a return to relatively moderate behavior. Here, there is a recent encouraging precedent. In the first part of 2007, the Bush administration declared Macao-based Banco Delta Asia a renegade institution assisting illegal financial activities by Pyongyang. American businesses were banned from dealing with BDA, and others followed suit. Macao government authorities froze $25 million in North Korean funds.

Washington then offered to facilitate sending the funds to Pyongyang in return for restraint concerning initiatives regarding developments of nuclear weapons. A transfer of funds to North Korea eventually was carried out by BDA, reportedly with assistance from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the central bank of Russia and a small private Russian financial institution, the Far East Commercial Bank.

This pressure resulted in a more flexible attitude from the North Korean government, at least for a time. Given the severe long-term suffering in North Korea, a return to similar economic incentives as part of a comprehensive diplomatic response might now be useful.

The timing of the missile launch also may prove to be unfortunate for North Korea. President Obama has just returned from a highly publicized trip to Europe. The extreme action by Pyongyang encourages Western alliance unity and draws international attention away from disagreements over sending more European troops to Afghanistan, or whether fiscal stimulus or greater regulation of business should be the priority response to the continuing global financial crisis.

Over the years, Pyongyang has become masterful at creating crises, sometimes approaching the brink of war, only to step back, usually in return for substantial economic concessions. For Seoul, Washington and their negotiating partners, the process has been very arduous, and at times such as these becomes a painful ordeal. Nevertheless, war has been averted and regional stability maintained.

Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College, Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

BY Arthur I. Cyr
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