Far from being a provocation to the United States and Japan, the launch demonstrated that Pyongyang has reached the limits of what it can expect to achieve by adapting the Scud technology it acquired from the former Soviet Union. To become the threat depicted by the missile defense lobby in Washington, and the by Japanese right wing, Pyongyang would have to develop its own indigenous technology for miniaturizing missile warheads. It took the United States eight years of testing to get its warheads down to 1000 kilograms, and there is no indication that Pyongyang has made significant progress in miniaturizing. Similarly, developing the heat shield needed for a re-entry vehicle is a daunting technical challenge that explains why only five countries (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) have developed ICBMs.
The accusation that the launch was a “provocation” is based on the 2006 UN Resolution, No. 1718, which bans “ballistic missile activity.” But as Russia and China pointed out, the U.N. Outer Space Treaty to which Pyongyang is a signatory does permit satellite launches.
In a National Public Radio debate I had with Victor Cha of Georgetown University, a former National Security Council official in the Bush Administration, he argued that Japan and South Korea do have legitimate research and commercial uses for their satellite activity, and North Korea does not. That is a valid argument. But what is important is that Japan’s rocket capabilities are already sophisticated enough to be married to a nuclear weapons program — and that Prime Minister Taro Aso has called for a “national debate” on whether Japan should have nuclear weapons, breaking the taboo on such a debate that has existed since Hiroshima.
So if the North Korean launch can be called provocative, it would be equally provocative for Japan to proceed with its scheduled H-2 launch this summer.
South Korea‘s anxieties are understandable because Seoul has agreed with the United States to limit its missiles to the 300 kilometers range specified in the Missile Technology Control regime. In the aftermath of the North Korean launch, it is more important than ever for regional missile limitation negotiations to be built into the six-party process, and for the Obama Administration to resume the bilateral missile negotiations that were in progress when the Clinton Administration ended.
On my January visit, I was told that Pyongyang is ready for missile talks with the United States. Seoul could properly seek assurance from Washington that regional missile limitations should be tied into any US-North Korean missile agreement.
The common assumption is that North Korea’s main motive was to get the attention of the Obama Administration. If so, it has succeeded, but the results will not necessarily be beneficial for Pyongyang. The Obama Administration is preoccupied with the financial mess and the Middle East and has not yet set up a firm policy making structure for dealing with North Korea. This was evident in the confused U.S. response to the launch. The White House took a much tougher line than Obama‘s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, who declared that “pressure is not the most productive line of approach” in dealing with Pyongyang, and urged a return to the six-party talks “after the dust of the missile settles a bit” – the right posture, in my view, but one immediately denounced by hard-line critics led by the Washington Post.
The Post said it was “hardly surprising,” given Bosworth’s comments, that Russia and China have attempted to block a reaffirmation of Resolution 1718 or a Statement by the Chairman of the Security Council denouncing the launch. My own view is that Moscow and Beijing have been influenced less by Bosworth than by North Korea’s March 26 warning that “even a single word” critical of the launch, whether in the form of a Chairman‘s Statement or a Council resolution, would nullify the September 19, 2005 Beijing declaration launching the six-party denuclearization negotiations.
Sooner or later, in my view, North Korea will be ready to return to the six-party process if the United States and South Korea keep the door open. At that point, Bosworth will be the right man to lead the U.S. negotiating team because he knows the light water reactor (LWR) issue as a result of his tenure as KEDO Chairman. I was told clearly on my January visit that a commitment on LWRs will be the key to moving from the disablement of the Yongbyon reactor to its dismantlement, and thus to capping the North Korean arsenal at the existing four or five nuclear weapons.
The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.