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2009/03/05 11:04 KST


North Korea Should Immediately Halt Long-range Missile Launch

By Yoo Ho-yeol (Professor at Korea University in Seoul, Korea)

The world took notice when satellite images came in revealing that North Korea had loaded what appeared to be a Taepodong-2 missile onto a truck at a munitions factory near Pyongyang in early February. Notwithstanding warnings from Seoul and Washington of strict international sanctions, the North proceeded with preparations for what many believe will be its third launch of a ballistic missile since earlier launches in 1999 and 2006.

   For the sake of demonstrating its stake as a responsible member of the international community, Pyongyang must immediately halt all activity related to the launch. Failing to do so will surely damage any hope North Korea has of achieving the goals it pursues, the foremost of which is gaining leverage in future dialogue with the new U.S. administration under Barack Obama.

   Pyongyang is also hoping to cement internal stability through the launch ahead of upcoming rubber-stamp parliamentary elections scheduled for March 8 amid rumors of succession following leader Kim Jong-il's reported health problems. Finally, the North intends to use the launch to escalate tensions along the inter-Korean border in order to isolate Seoul from international talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.

   According to the North's Korean Committee of Space Technology (KCST), the launch preparations are in fact for what the North calls the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite, which it says it hopes to send into orbit via the Unha-2 delivery rocket. The aim, according to the KCST, is to demonstrate the scientific and technological achievements of the Kim Jong-il regime.

   Pyongyang's leaders must be content, as their multi-pronged strategy seems to be bearing fruit, at least on the U.S. side. The Obama government sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an unprecedented tour of East Asia, her first official overseas trip in the post and the first time in decades that a secretary of state has made Asia their first stop abroad. Immediately after came the appointment of Stephen Bosworth as Washington's special representative for North Korea. In the South, growing criticism of President Lee Myung-bak's hardline policy against the North may serve to embolden Pyongyang further.

   North Korea's hopes are misplaced, however, as Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to the six-party framework on the full verification and eventual abolition of the North's nuclear program. The Obama government has also come out strongly against any planned launch by Pyongyang, condemning the move as a threat to the peace and stability of the region and warning that such action will inevitably lead to harsh sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council on the Kim Jong-il regime. China and Japan have echoed similar views and have emphasized the need to restart the six-party talks.

   Seoul, meanwhile, has maintained a "calm," if resolute, attitude with regards to Pyongyang's increasingly hostile behavior. Even groups ordinarily critical of the government have joined in condemning the North's missile preparations, with the view that a nuclear armed North with the capability to deliver such weapons is unacceptable.

   Not withstanding the homogeneity of opinion that appears to be apparent within North Korea, given its vociferous propaganda machine, discontent within the broader populace must be burgeoning given the chronic lack of food. Considering the enormous cost of sending a satellite into orbit -- if that is in fact what the North is planning -- there are certain to be those, even among the elite, who question the rationale behind such a project given circumstances on the ground. Some may wonder whether such an undertaking is worth the stated goal of proclaiming Kim Jong-il's achievements while paving the way for a smooth succession.

   North Korea's leadership must not underestimate the ramifications of sanctions put in place by the international community. If it believes that it escaped unscathed from the sanctions put upon it following its 2006 missile launch, it is in grave danger of overlooking the dramatic changes that have occurred with time. Unlike the early years of the Chollima Movemment of the postwar late 1950s, modeled after a similar movement in China and named for a mythic winged horse in Korean Legend, today's populace is far more informed about the world beyond their borders. Pyongyang cannot afford to ignore the growing discontent that is taking hold among its people.

   In this day and age, a missile launch by North Korea will not succeed in restarting the clock of history frozen by international sanctions and by the isolation imposed on the country. In light of this, Pyongyang's top leader must immediately scrap plans for what is bound to be an utterly destructive launch.