by Nobuyoshi Sakajiri
Originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9, 2009
Regardless of whether we identify it as a "missile" or a "rocket," Sunday's launch of what Pyongyang called a "satellite" seemed to be an unambiguous triumph for North Korea. This is not because Kim Jong Il expressed "great satisfaction" to be able to "put the satellite into orbit" as the state news media reported on Monday, but because the launch successfully spotlighted the serious divisions among members of the UN Security Council and the six-party talks regarding how best to respond.
Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul insisted that North Korea's launch of a "long-range ballistic missile" violated the Security Council resolutions passed in the aftermath of North Korea's 2006 nuclear test. China and Russia, both countries with veto power, are not convinced it was a breach. At the press conference in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jaing Yu urged a cautious response to North Korea and even referred to "the right of all countries to peaceful use of outer space." Her remarks are similar to those made after China's unannounced anti-satellite test in 2007.
However, the reality is that these same three countries, the US, Japan, and South Korea, asked China to chair the six-party talks in Beijing despite having a fundamental strategic disconnect with China on what North Korea represents as a threat. The real threat of North Korea to China has been its potential catastrophic collapse.
Since the establishment of the six-party talks in 2003, North Korea has tested a nuclear device, was delisted from a terrorism blacklist by the previous US administration, and received heavy fuel oil in exchange for reversible disablement of the nuclear program.
Sunday's launch, according to Western experts, showed that North Korea increased its missile capability and range. The massive first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile functioned well and it propelled the upper two stages over Japan into the Pacific. The successful launch marked a major upgrade over North Korea's first test in 2006, which failed after less than a minute. This time the missile traveled twice as far as any missile North Korea has launched in the past.
Although North Korea still may be years away from building a missile to threaten the US, Japan faces clear and present danger and yet it failed miserably during this first test. Japanese Self Defense Forces deployed two Aegis destroyers to the Sea of Japan and one to the Pacific Ocean to monitor and possibly intercept the missile. Two vessels equipped with SM-3 surface-to-air interceptor missiles were also dispatched to the Sea of Japan.
Despite being on alert, the Japanese government mistakenly declared that there had been liftoff at one point minutes before Prime Minister Taro Aso was to release his statement denouncing North Korea. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada apologized that evening. This showed the world how poor the transmission of information was within the Japanese government.
Prime Minister Aso eventually denounced the launch, saying, "The fact that North Korea went ahead with the launch despite repeated warnings from around the world, especially the United States, South Korea, and Japan, was an extremely provocative act and one that Japan cannot let go unchallenged." The Japanese government extended some of its sanctions, but this will have little if any effect since Japan's trade with North Korea has already decreased dramatically. In 2006, Japanese exports to North Korea totaled 5.1 billion yen; in 2008, that figure was just 800 million yen.
On the diplomatic front in New York, Japan allied with the US but was unsuccessful in getting the UN Security Council to condemn Pyongyang, with China and Russia indicating they favor a cautious approach. The Security Council resolutions in 2006 have proved ineffective because few countries have strictly complied with their terms. Any punitive steps by Japan alone would be insignificant. To make matters worse, Japan's voice in the six-party talks has been weakened since it refused to participate in the provision of heavy fuel oil as a carrot for North Korea.
So what can or should Japan do now? At the very least, it must not offer North Korea an excuse to drop out of the six-party talks. Beyond the missile launch, North Korea may still expel international inspectors, restore nuclear facilities, and even detonate a second nuclear device. Extending inefficient sanctions and isolating itself under the framework of the six-party talks might make Japan the biggest loser.
Sunday's launch violated UN resolutions, and Japan's tough verbal response is understandable. However, Japan also has to realize that the ultimate goal for the international community is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which is also in Japan's national interest. In addition to that, the Japanese government has the urgent objective of rescuing its citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. Japan cannot afford to embrace a fantasy that it can unilaterally contain the hermit kingdom.
The issue is not how to punish North Korea but how to pull it from brinkmanship to the negotiation table. Diplomacy is painful, especially when you deal with a dictator, but the Japanese government's embarrassing mishandling of its response to the North Korean launch last weekend proves that Japan has only one option: strategic diplomacy.
Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is Asia Society's Bernard Schwartz Fellow based in Washington, DC. He was the Beijing correspondent of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun from 2005 to August 2008.