[Viewpoint] North Korea’s Cold War gambit

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[Viewpoint] North Korea’s Cold War gambit

Although there is serious doubt that North Korea has put a satellite into orbit on April 5, there is no dispute that it achieved successful separation of the second and third stages of its rocket, demonstrating a step toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. That is enough to keep Pyongyang from slipping off the radar of the international community, just as the North wants.

The United Nations Security Council has issued a statement condemning the launch, saying that it contravenes Security Council Resolution 1718 of 2006, which bars the North from all ballistic missile activities.

Seoul, Washington and Tokyo had sought a Council resolution, a tougher measure, but China and Russia urged restraint to avoid jeopardizing the six-party talks toward denuclearizing North Korea.

Nevertheless, the statement was accompanied by calls to expand the sanctions under the 2006 resolution, which target organizations and companies that assist with Pyongyang’s missile development.

Why would North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il defy international pressure and launch the rocket knowing that he risked harsh global reaction? It is too high a price to launch a communications satellite. But a look at events leading up to the launch provides some clues.

First, the North Korean regime needed to solidify its internal grip. At the recent session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly in March, the National Defense Commission was significantly expanded with Jang Sung-Taek, husband of Kim’s younger sister, taking a senior position. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August (he looked markedly thinner and paler in post-launch government photos) and the election and seating of the Assembly was delayed for months.

The Pyongyang regime used the delay as an opportunity to ferret out anyone who seemed to have the slightest antipathy toward the regime. The house cleaning helps pave the way for a smooth power transition, which must be on Kim’s mind given his fragile health.

Another goal behind the rocket launch was diplomatic relations. North Korea is eager to normalize relations with the United States, and the rocket was regarded internationally as way to get Washington to negotiate directly with Pyongyang, outside the six-party talks.

But a broader context should be considered. The primary motive for the launch looks beyond a thaw in Pyongyang-Washington relations. The launch gained global attention, and North Korea wanted to show Kim swaying worldwide politics and manipulating the United States.

It is also necessary to watch Pyongyang’s approach to China and Russia.

In the past, the North actively tried to disrupt policy coordination between the South and the United States. Of late, it seems to be seeking alliances with China and Russia in response to South Korea-U.S. coordination, which has strengthened since the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak. The North must now want to enhance its value and regain the security guarantees it enjoyed during the Cold War by pitting its neighbors against Seoul and Washington.

Of note is the fact that there were also signs of preparation for a rocket launch in North Pyongan Province. Large-scale rocket facilities are under construction there, and that unsettles Beijing. The April 5 launch was from North Hamgyong Province, near the northern tip of the Korean east coast. The launch was relocated to prompt China into doing what the North wants.

North Korea wants to recreate the atmosphere of the Cold War, but that is wishful thinking and anachronistic. Given relations between the United States and China and the triangular relationship of South Korea, Japan and China, the confrontational structure that the North would welcome is unlikely to be formed.

To be sure, to prevent another rocket launch, South Korea needs to seek cooperation with Russia and China within the framework of South Korea-U.S.-Japan policy coordination. This suggests a coordinated effort by members of the six-party talks to restrain Pyongyang rather than allow the North to turn its participants against each other.

The North simply needs to move toward the future, not try to return to the past. As long as the North does not change, the quality of life of North Koreans will increasingly worsen and the regime will only become more isolated.

*The writer is a senior fellow in the global studies department at Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, please visit www.seriworld.org.

by Dong Yong-seung
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