Posted by: Kenji Hall on April 05, 2009
North Korea’s launch of a rocket on April 5 defied several United Nations Security Council resolutions and puts pressure on the international community to crack down on what the U.S. and its allies see as Pyongyang’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
But how do you punish a country that’s willing to starve its own people so that it can buy tanks, missiles and nuclear technology? And with reports that North Korea’s 67-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Il, has been too sick to appear in public since last August, who do you negotiate with?
Those are the challenges the U.S. and its allies face as they try to rein in the North Korean regime without worsening the plight of ordinary North Koreans.
Pyongyang launched its three-stage rocket at around 11:30 a.m. local time Sunday (10:30 p.m. Saturday, Eastern Standard Time), according to the Japanese government. Japan’s Chief Cabinet spokesman Takeo Kawamura told reporters in Tokyo that the rocket had jettisoned its first stage into the Sea of Japan (between the Korean Peninsula and Japan) and passed over the Japanese archipelago before releasing its second stage into the Pacific. The third stage was supposed to lift its payload, North Korea’s first satellite, into the earth’s orbit. The North’s official media said the satellite is now beaming down revolutionary songs, though the U.S. and South Korea said they had seen no evidence of a satellite, according to Reuters.
Western military officials have said that Pyongyang could use the same rocket to fire a long-range missile—possibly armed with a nuclear warhead—at the U.S., and that the launch would violate a 2006 Security Council resolution. That resolution had demanded that North Korea “not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.”
The launch sparked an outcry from governments in Asia. South Korea condemned the North’s “reckless act” while Japan called it “extremely regrettable” and requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “We have sent a message of protest to North Korea through the Chinese,” Kawamura said at a news conference today. He said no debris from the rocket appeared to have fallen on Japanese territory or caused any injuries.
Japan says it’s considering tougher economic sanctions against North Korea. Aides to President Obama also said at last week’s Group of 20 meeting in London that they would push for harsher measures against Pyongyang through the U.N. Security Council. But it’s unclear whether isolating North Korea, already one of the world’s most isolated countries, is the right choice.
This latest satellite launch appeared to be a ploy to get the Obama administration’s attention. And how can Washington ignore it? The reason the U.S. even bothers: It worries about Pyongyang buying and selling military--and possibly even nuclear--technology with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Yemen and Libya. "I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council," Obama said during a visit to Prague, Czech Republic.
North Korea spends as much as 40% of its gross domestic product--roughly $16 billion a year, based on CIA estimates of the country's GDP--on its military, according to recent U.S. State Department estimates.
At the same time, malnutrition afflicts a huge swathe of the population. The U.N. mobilizes a massive international aid effort that feeds millions of North Koreans who are on the verge of starvation. U.N. programs delivered more than $1.7 billion worth of food to about a third of the population between 1995 and 2005. In the coming year, more than a third of North Korea’s 23 million people are expected to need food aid from other countries, the United Nations World Food Program said in a report last December.
The problem is, no amount of carrot-and-stick diplomacy with North Korea has ever lasted for long. Kim has shown a knack for knowing when to play nice and when to ramp up the rhetoric to get his way. He has used a nuclear program and ballistic-missile tests to squeeze aid--both food and fuel--from the outside world. Threaten North Korea, as Japan did recently--saying it was prepared to shoot down the rocket if it was headed toward Japanese territory--and North Korea simply retorts with naked threats of retaliation.
And no sense trying to hold Kim to his word. Breaking promises might as well be official North Korean policy. One example: Last August, North Korea suddenly announced that it would no longer abide by a pact to dismantle its nuclear facilities that had been reached months earlier with the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and South Korea, in the so-called six-party talks.
After North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles in 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution banning countries from selling military and technological equipment and luxury goods to North Korea. It also cut off Pyongyang from funds it has stashed in overseas accounts. Tokyo imposed its own sanctions, shutting the one port open to North Korean cargo ships bringing mushrooms and shellfish to sell in Japan. Japanese officials also tightened restrictions on North Korean nationals living in Japan who send money back home.
Of course, isolating Pyongyang doesn't do much to help matters. And sooner or later Kim knows his antics will make someone nervous. To avoid cutting all communication with Pyongyang, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia and China have kept the six-party talks going in what appears to be a vain attempt at coaxing Pyongyang give up on its nuclear ambitions once and for all.
And where did that lead? Two and a half years of economic sanctions and countless on-again-off-again diplomatic meetings later, North Korea is again back to its old game of raising hell.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.