West answers N. Korea launch preparations with a barrage of hot air

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

SEOUL — North Korea’s determination to fire a long-range missile sometime between Wednesday and next Monday is leaving the United States and its allies in the humiliating position of issuing rhetorical threats with no real chance of carrying them out.

The helplessness of the U.S. position was clear from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning of “appropriate action” in retaliation. If that remark has any meaning, it is simply that the whole issue will go before the United Nations Security Council, where North Korea can be sure China, and probably Russia, will block anything other than pro forma “condemnation” — and will not be likely to want to deepen sanctions imposed in June 2009.

North Korean technicians work at the control room of the Tongchang-ri space center, on April 8. N.Korea's long-range rocket is on its launch platform, AFP reporters saw on April 8. /Pedro Ugart/AFP

Those sanctions were imposed after North Korea had conducted its second underground nuclear test and test-fired an earlier version of the same long-range missile that it’s now got on the launch pad. North Korea has managed to get around the sanctions largely with the cooperation of China, which continues to provide the North with almost all its oil and much of its food.

“I don’t think there’s much we can do,” said L. Gordon Flake, director of the Mansfield Center in Washington. “There are no good options.” Under the circumstances,” he said, “What we’re talking about his crisis management.”

The North Korean plan would appear to represent the complete breakdown of an agreement reached by U.S. envoy Glyn Davies and North Korea’s veteran negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan in Beijing on February 29 for a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing in exchange for much needed food.

The U.S. has said North Korea can forget about the food after firing the missile, but that threat may not be all that meaningful as far as the North Koreans are concerned. The food as promised was mostly for severely underfed children under the age of six, not rice for the North’s 1.1 million troops.

What counts for North Korea’s skilled propagandists is that they are mesmerizing the foreign media in the run-up to the launch, providing daily briefings at which top officials are talking about plans for the test. The latest, on Wednesday by Paek Chang-Ho, head of the satellite control center of the Korean Committee of Space Technology, said technicians were fueling the missile on the launch pad. As for the exact timing for firing, he said that was up to his “superiors”.

Adding to the drama was a conference of the ruling Workers’ Party — all in anticipation of enormous celebrations on Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the founding “Great Leader”. He ruled for nearly 50 years before dying in 1994 and leaving power to his son Kim Jong-Il, who died last December.

Kim Jong-Il’s third son, Kim Jong-Un, in his late 20′s, hailed as “supreme leader” and “supreme commander” since his father’s death, acquired the formal title of first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party. His father, who for years had been the party’s general secretary, was named “eternal general secretary” — a decision in keeping with the anointment of Kim Il-Sung as “eternal president” after his death.

The gift to Kim Jong-Un of the title of “first secretary” was seen as needed to buttress his rule — and could set him up to take over another of his father’s titles, that of chairman of the national defense commission, the real center of power.

Although it’s far from clear how much power Kim Jong-Un really holds over the small circle of advisers surrounding him, those titles should give him much needed credibility as the country’s real leader. He’s already reportedly surrounded by senior military leaders eager to establish North Korea’s standing as a nuclear power amid unmistakable signs of preparations for a third underground nuclear test.

The prospect of the missile launch — and another nuclear test — suggests a familiar cycle of denunciations followed by negotiations while Washington remains fixated not by North Korea but by Iran and the Middle East.

“It does not appear to me that North Korea has been occupying a whole lot of time and attention,” said Scott Snyder, Korea analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “There are other issues that President Obama is focusing on. It looks like they’re going to wait and watch.”

Snyder, author of numerous articles and books on negotiations with North Korea, sees the North Korean missile launch as “a no-win situation” for Washington but anticipates, after it happens, that eventually the U.S. and North Korea will get back to dialogue.

“It’s true we probably haven’t talked to North Korea for the last time,” he said in droll understatement. At the least, he expects the United Nations Security Council “to come up with various messages” but acknowledges that new sanctions may not be effective — and that North Korea may respond by conducting its third nuclear test.

That observation evokes memories of North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009, six weeks after the North launched a missile that North Korea claimed had put a satellite into orbit. No satellite was ever spotted, and it’s highly uncertain if any satellite was attached to the missile.

In Seoul, Choi Jin-Wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, observed that nations, notably China, were “already not enforcing UN resolution 1874″ imposing sanctions after the second nuclear test.

Choi questioned, however, whether North Korea would go through with a third test in view of the moratorium negotiated by the U.S. and North Korea on February 29.

“We cannot expect a catastrophic situation from a rocket launch,” said Choi, “but if they test an underground nuclear device, that is much more serious.” Amid reports from South Korea that North Korea is getting ready for a nuclear test, he said flatly, “I don’t believe they have decided to do that.”

At the same time, he doubts whether North Korea has affixed a satellite to the missile that it plans to launch in the next few days. “I don’t believe they’ve been able to do that,” he said, forecasting that North Korea would again make a false claim to have put a satellite into orbit.

Choi predicted, after the hullaballoo over the rocket launch is done, that gradually the U.S. and North Korea would return to the mode of negotiating a moratorium in exchange for food aid. The U.S. agreed on Feb. 29 to ship 240,000 tons of food over a 12-month period but suspended the plan in view of the impending launch.

“North Korea wants to talk to the U.S. about a peace treaty,” he said. The North has long called for a treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953.

Choi believes the talks will intensify next year — after the U.S. presidential election and inauguration of the president — regardless of whether Obama or a Republican wins the election. “The timing will be good,” he said. “Then the U.S. can again start thinking seriously about North Korea.”

A crucial factor, experts believe, will be Chinese pressure on North Korea. So far the Chinese have called for “peace and stability on the Korean peninsula” — a response that U.S. officials find extremely disappointing.

After the missile launch, “the focus shifts to what to expect from China ,” said Snyder. “That is a factor.”

Even if Obama were firm, he asked rhetorically, “What would the Chinese do about it.” Of course, he added, “if the North Koreans do manage to put a satellite into orbit, that would be a strategic advance.”

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