Korean missile politics overshadow Seoul nuclear terrorism summit

More than 50 world leaders, including President Obama, are set to arrive in Seoul to discuss prevention of nuclear terrorism, but Pyongyang's plans for a new missile test have shifted the discussion.

Lee Jin-man/AP
South Korean protesters tear apart a North Korean flag during an anti-North Korea rally, denouncing the North's plan to launch a long-range rocket, in Seoul, Tuesday, March 20. North Korea vowed Sunday to go ahead with plans to launch a long-range rocket, rejecting criticism in the West that it would scuttle recent diplomacy.

North Korea’s plan to launch a long-range rocket next month revs up the confrontation on the Korean peninsula just as South Korea is about to welcome more than 50 global leaders here to come up with an agenda for combating nuclear terrorism.

In the first substantive response to the North Korean plan, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has indicated he will impress upon President Obama the South’s desire to update a 32-year-old agreement with the US that limits South Korean missiles to a range of 300 kilometers.

“We need an appropriate range,” Mr. Lee has been telling journalists here. “Realities and circumstances have changed.”

Lee is expected to make his plea for revision of the missile deal when he sees Mr. Obama on Sunday after the US president gets back from a quick visit to the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

The shock of North Korea’s announcement of a missile test gives fresh significance to a “national security summit” in which the leaders on Monday and Tuesday will discuss a wide range of measures to keep nuclear devices from falling into the hands of terrorists.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Sung-hwan, today branded the North Korean plan to launch a rocket “a grave provocation” intended to test “a vehicle with nuclear weapons.” Mr. Kim bristled, however, when asked about a threat by the North to view any mention of North Korea at the summit as “a declaration of war.”

“Individual issues will not be discussed at the nuclear summit,” he said. “I do not know why they keep saying that.” Rather, he said, “This is a peace summit,” dedicated to coming out with rules to keep terrorists from acquiring and using nuclear weapons.

Containment, not denuclearization

North Korea’s plan comes as a bitter disappointment, considering that US nuclear envoy Glyn Davies and North Korea’s envoy Kim Kye-gwan came up with a deal on Feb. 29 that was widely described as “a breakthrough.” Mr. Kim said North Korea would observe a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while Mr. Davies said the US would provide 240,000 tons of food aid.

“So what is Pyongyang up to?” asks Ralph Cossa, who runs the Pacific forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu. “The North Koreans pulled the rug out from everyone” at a time when it appeared “safe to go back to six-party talks,” last held in December 2008, on the North’s nuclear program, Mr. Cossa says.

Indeed, the specter of the North Korean missile test hangs heavy over the summit during which leaders are certain to mull the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran “on the sidelines,” over meals, in quiet sessions in hotel rooms – and in mini-summits with President Lee.

In symposiums and seminars staged here all week, analysts have focused on the shock of the North Korean rocket launch rather than on nuclear terrorism.

Everyone appears to agree that North Korea’s real aim is to test an advanced version of the same long-range Taepodong missile that it has test-fired on two previous occasions, in August 1998 and again in April 2009. In each of those cases, North Korea said it had put a satellite into orbit, but scientists say they never saw any sign of a satellite launch.

The bottom line among analysts is that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear program.

“The best we can do is to get them to freeze the program,” says Peter Beck, director of the Asia Foundation here. “Until we accept that North Korea is not going to denuclearize, all we can do is contain North Korea.”

Siegfried Hecker, the physicist who visited the North Korean nuclear complex in 2010 and saw firsthand how far North Korea has gone in its highly enriched uranium program, describes himself as “pessimistic in the short run but optimistic in the long run.”

“We should give them a sense of security,” says Mr. Hecker, director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “In the longer term, I view North Korea as an island of instability in an area of stability” dominated by China and Japan as well as South Korea.

Although North Korea possesses enough material for six to eight nuclear warheads, says Hecker, the North is frustrated by its inability actually to deliver a warhead to a target. “They have the bomb but not much of a delivery system,” he says. “That’s why these tests are so important.”

Hecker places urgency on the need to persuade China to exercise pressure on North Korea to cease and desist. “China will say, ‘We want peace and stability,” he says, “but will they understand these provocations are threatening peace and stability?”

Kim Jong-un asserts his power

One theory is that the missile launch, timed for the centennial celebrations of the birth of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung on April 15, is a show to buttress the power of his grandson, Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of Kim Jong-il in December.

In an effort by Kim Jong-un to assert himself on the home front, according to reports here today, North Korea has mounted a purge of senior officials for showing signs of disloyalty during the mourning period after the funeral for his father.

An official with South Korea’s unification ministry says such reports are “plausible.” South Korea’s biggest-selling newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported “a bloody purge” that saw “barbaric methods including mortar rounds used to execute high-ranking military officials.”

North Korea, says the unification ministry official, “made it very clear that those who violated the mourning would be punished,”

Some experts question, however, whether Kim Jong-un would have personally issued the orders for executing people or whether he rubber-stamped suggestions from lower ranking officials.

“I doubt whether Kim Jong-un directed everything completely,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification. “Kim Jong-un must be very careful” as he establishes control. “He wants to purge those generals standing in his way.”

The purge of officials paralleled increasingly vitriolic rhetorical blasts leveled against South Korea while Kim Jong-un visits military units closest to South Korean forces. He has been ordering soldiers to fire back “without hesitation” in order to “wipe out” South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, routinely described as a “traitor.”

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