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Korea's missile salvo to world

US and Japan called for a 'strong' global response at the UN Security Council meeting Wednesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2006



BEIJING

Kim Jong Il's seven missile launches on July 4 have woken up East Asia from a long somnambulance about North Korea.

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The firing of the missiles, which mostly landed in Russian waters, is regarded as a military act – prompting Asian states to rethink their approach both to North Korea and each other. While a small crisis, it could be divisive and play into local differences, analysts say, causing further tensions at a time when the region is already experiencing difficult relations.

China and South Korea, for example, tend to feel that North Korea's tests are a function of Mr. Kim's often unpredictable nature – a type of political theater designed to attract attention and draw the US to the negotiating table, but that is militarily meaningless.

Yet the Pentagon and officials in Japan, the country most likely to be targeted by Korea and with the most to lose, feel they don't have the luxury of dismissing Kim so lightly, and that it is unwise to let a "rogue state" to test fire rockets that can potentially carry a nuclear payload.

Hours after the launches, Tokyo issued a series of detailed punitive measures, including the suspension of contacts with the North. It asked for – and got – an emergency UN Security Council meeting.

Just before that meeting Wednesday, UN Ambassador John Bolton said the council must send a "strong and unanimous signal" that Kim's actions were unacceptable, adding that the council would proceed in a "calm and deliberate fashion."

In contrast to Tokyo, Beijing took most of the day to respond, calling for "restraint" and putting out messages that the wisest approach would be to forgo sanctions and return to the six-party negotiations.

Nonetheless, some analysts say, the move has hurt China. "Beijing has been putting a lot of capital into the idea that they were going to put this missile thing back in the box," says a senior US diplomat in Asia. "They were obviously not able to." And, he adds, "[Kim] has dropped some large, heavy rocks on the toes of people in South Korea and China who were sympathetic to him."

If not handled astutely, the issue could further militarize the region, embolden Japanese nationalists, and introduce missile-defense systems. It could cause drift between South Korea and the Japan-US maritime alliance, and between the US and China.

Many US officials in Asia expressed deep surprise that Kim tested. "I thought they were doing this all for show. But they hit the switch," says a US military official in South Korea. "This provokes everyone."

Analysts say that for a month, while Kim fueled the Taepodong-2 long-range missile on a remote site, officials in Seoul and Beijing suggested that the missile might be a weather satellite. That was what Kim called the Taepodong-1, which flew over Japan in 1998 before it was detected – spurring a new chapter of US-Japanese military cooperation.

"In '98, Kim said it was a satellite. But now, with [six] other missiles fired, they can't make that argument," says Alexandre Mansurov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "You don't fire [seven] missiles to test a satellite. It is a show of force. I think the Scuds and Nodongs were probably decoys."

"Kim wants more cards to play in the six-party talks. But I think he has now miscalculated," says Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the international studies department at Beijing University. "Kim may think he is getting more cards. But I think this will only make the voice of the hard-liners in the US and Japan stronger."

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