Kim Jong Il's seven missile launches on July 4 have woken up East Asia from a long somnambulance about North Korea.
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."
Shinzo Abe, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's presumptive successor, said that "We must take strict measures in response to North Korea's missile firing." Sanctions were necessary to "express our view that the missile firing is a threat to the security of Japan and the region," he said.
Still, some analysts say that Kim, who receives significant aid from China, is in a strong position. "This is a no-lose act. They are doing internally better, and are more confident. They are trying to coerce the US back to the negotiation table," says Mr. Mansurov.
The tests indicate that Kim continues to relish being his own man, showing that he is independent from China and others, say experts. Kim, like his father, runs his poor and isolated country on a complex principle of "self-reliance" called Juche, which has turned North Korea into something of a cult of personality. Kim can't afford to open his society as that could force changes that could undermine Juche. Yet North Korea is in a part of Asia that is modernizing rapidly – causing unknown strains on the North's system.
By launching what was clearly a military test on the 4th of July, moments after the space shuttle took off, Kim showed there was a personal angle to the test as well. In the past year, as the six-party talks languished, the US and China cooperated to shut down North Korean accounts at the Macau-based Delta Bank of Asia, where perhaps as much as 40 percent of Pyongyang's liquid assets were being laundered. US official sources last week confirmed that several accounts in Macau were Kim's personally. Last month, North Korea stated that it would not return to the six-party process until sanctions were taken off.
The tests are the latest in a series of "brinkmanship" steps by Kim with the Bush administration, which early labeled the regime an "axis of evil" because of its potential as a missile and nuclear proliferator, and because it is widely regarded as one of the most repressive states in the world. Both Kim and Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, have felt it important to negotiate directly with the US for a security guarantee.
The Bush administration quickly rejected President Clinton's policy of "engagement," conducted in tandem with South Korea. But Clinton's security adviser, Sandy Berger, stated on CNN July 4th that "negotiating is not capitulating." Last month, in a rare critique, a former Foreign Service officer who headed the Korea desk, David Straub, said that Condoleezza Rice's policy to isolate the North and suggest military action continually undercut any hope of fruitful negotiations.
In 2002, Kim started what would be a series of crossing "red lines" by kicking out UN weapons inspectors. That act resulted in the formation of six-party talks to dismantle the North's nuclear program.
In some ways, Kim is playing to the street in both North and South Korea striking a nationalist pose that plays off centuries of Korean pride at surviving as a small state in the midst of constant invasions by Russia, Japan, and China.
"Kim may be doing this to get respect, but he's not getting as much respect as he would if the rocket had stayed in the air for more than a minute," says the US military official in South Korea.