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April 3, 2009
South Korea and Japan brace for North Korea rocket launch

A satellite image of the rocket at the Musudanri facility in North Korea. Photo: Institute for Science and International Security

U.S. officials say North Korea appears to be on track for a rocket launch that could take place as early as this Saturday.

A satellite image from earlier this week showed the rocket on a launchpad. U.S. defense officials say that fueling is underway. Meanwhile, South Korea’s navy and coast guard are maintaining a heavy presence near North Korean waters. Although North Korea says the rocket will launch a satellite, South Korea, Japan and the United States think the North Koreans are planning a test of long-range missile technology.

In London on Thursday, President Obama discussed the implications of the launch with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak. They issued a statement agreeing on “a stern, united response from the international community if North Korea launches a long-range rocket.”

Blogger Ben Luongo at “Creative Loafing” argues that Obama’s “soft power” approach to North Korea may prove effective:

The foreign policy over the past eight years has been aggressive with threats and likely to justify its actions through self-defense. This hasn’t always been a good thing though. Eight years of the Bush Doctrine has eroded much of our soft power, which in today’s globalizing era is more effective than our might. It doesn’t go unnoticed, then, when a new foreign policy takes a more pragmatic outlook.

[U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] Gates makes a smart move by saying that we’re not prepared to shoot down any launch and here is why. The only way to ensure security between the U.S. and North Korea, or North Korea and the rest of the world for that matter, is to encourage North Korea into the modern international system where we govern our actions by law. If the U.S. were to shoot down a North Korean launch then it would be taking the law into its own hands, which is essentially the same offense (non-compliance with law) that North Korea is guilty of. Rather what the U.S. and Japan should do is let the international legal system work as it should. Nothing is more counterproductive, more hypocritical, than acting outside the system that we work so hard to bring North Korea into.

Hopefully, a new foreign policy under President Obama would work towards encouraging North Korea into the international system, where Kim Jong-Il would learn that testing the system is less productive than working with it.

Blogger Peter Kang at “World Policy” disagrees, writing that Obama’s change in approach to North Korea may prove disastrous for South Korea:

In the long run, Obama’s approach, which emphasizes more engagement with, and acceptance of, Pyongyang than the policies pursued by Bush, is likely to grant even more precious time to the North.

In the end, the Obama administration may be writing the final chapter of America’s failed North Korea policy by bringing about a devastating U.S. surrender: abandoning the denuclearization effort, accepting the monstrous tyranny as a member of the world nuclear club, and opening the gateway for the North to take over the South.

It is too simplistic to think that the United States can still protect South Korea under its nuclear umbrella. Most likely, North Korea’s strategy will not involve waging a full-scale war, which Pyongyang knows it cannot win. Instead, it will focus on the following approaches: 1) conducting guerrilla and terror attacks against the South; 2) enlisting the support of China, which wants to preserve a Communist dictatorship as a neighbor; 3) weakening South Korea’s will to defend itself by stirring up the already vicious infighting in the South between the majority pro-American conservatives and the minority but very aggressive progressives and leftists sympathetic to the North; and 4) using nuclear brinkmanship as a barrier against U.S. support for the South.

[…]The most urgent thing now is to issue a stern warning to Pyongyang clearly indicating intended punishments for the missile launch. Washington should do this regardless of what North Korea says about the Six-Party Talks, about reversing the denuclearization process, or about conducting a second nuclear test.

An American living in Korea writes at the “Elephant Talk” blog about Japan’s position and its relationship with both North and South Korea:

As we get closer to North Korea’s missile launch, Japan becomes a more interesting player. The thought of Japan preparing for a North Korean provocation begs several questions: Would Japan really take an aggressive stand on this? Would Japan ever go to war with the DPRK? And the bigger one: If they did engage fully in war with the North, what would South Koreans think of that? All Koreans, it seems, share a collective dislike when it comes Japan.  […] If the DPRK landed a few missiles in Tokyo, or took control of Dokdo island, would there be a little tiny squeal of collective joy from the south? I asked a couple Korean friends this recently and one admitted, laughing, yeah, maybe a little.

For more on South-North Korea relations, see Wide Angle’s “Field Trip to the DMZ,” showcasing North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

The rocket will likely fly over Japanese territory, and the country has begun implementing countermeasures in northern Japan, ordering the military to intercept any debris. Blogger Tobias Harris in Japan discusses the political ramifications for Japan’s leaders:

I recognize that the Japanese government is unable to treat the rocket launch as nonchalantly as the U.S., by virtue of geography (the U.S., after all, doesn’t have to worry about debris falling on its territory), public opinion (overwhelmly supportive of the government’s response, according to a Sankei poll — even JCP supporters tended to be more supportive than not), path dependency (having pursued a hard line up until now, the government could hardly do otherwise), a desire to somehow rectify Japan’s unpreparedness when North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998, and Prime Minister Aso’s ideological tendencies. But the government better hope that should North Korea go through with the launch, no debris falls on Japan, because the damage it could cause in the likely event that an attempted intercept fails would be enough to destroy the Aso government, which has enjoyed a slight recovery in its support of late.

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