Posted by: Kenji Hall on March 25, 2009
Brinksmanship. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome.” It’s a favorite diplomatic tactic of North Korea, which has often used threats of war and nuclear arms tests to great effect.
But this time, it seems, Japan and the U.S. just might call its bluff.
Sometime between April 4 and 8, North Korea plans to launch a satellite, and has cautioned commercial planes not to fly too close. It has said that two of the rocket’s pieces would land in the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. The problem with this pre-launch warning is that nobody believes that Pyongyang’s intention is to enter the space race. Most see the launch as the hermetic state’s thinly veiled attempt to test its long-range ballistic missile.
The North is expected to send up its Taepodong-2 rocket. That’s the same rocket used for ballistic missile launches. A test-launch wouldn’t only violate a U.N. Security Council resolution. It would also fan fears that the North could fire long-range missiles at targets in Japan and the U.S. or that it could sell the technology to others. Pyongyang’s only test of the Taepodong-2, in 2006, was deemed a failure because it exploded in mid-flight, shortly after take-off.
The North’s rebuttal? “It is perversity to say satellite launch technology cannot be distinguished from a long-range missile technology and so must be dealt with by the U.N. Security Council,” North Korea’s state-run media quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. It’s like saying “a kitchen knife is no different from a bayonet.”
Normally, the U.S. and its allies have played the peace-maker to the North’s rabble-rouser. Not this time. According to the financial daily Nikkei today, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso will order the country’s military to shoot down the North’s projectile, if it looks likely to land in or near Japan. Tokyo could deploy its Aegis-equipped destroyers, which have weapons systems that are designed for this kind of thing.
The U.S. Pacific fleet also has ships in Asia that can intercept missiles. Last week, U.S. commander for the Pacific region, Timothy Keating, expressed confidence that U.S. forces could hit a North Korean missile.
It’s debatable whether they will shoot down the rocket. North Korea has said it would consider that an act of war, and nobody is likely to take the threat lightly. Two dates serve as reminders of what Pyongyang is capable of doing. In 1998, the North launched a rocket that flew over Japan and plunged into the Pacific, catching Japan by surprise. And in 2006, the North conducted what many military experts believe was a test explosion of a nuclear bomb.
In the past, the North’s test-launches have been met with pressure from Tokyo, Seoul and Washington. China might also weigh in. This could continue to play out over the next week and a half. In that time, the tense stand-off could fizzle—or we could see why Koreans, when in a heated discussion, like to use the phrase “You die! I die!”