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 US 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
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.
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 US 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 US 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
Adding to the drama is that
North Korea's rubberstamp Supreme People's
Assembly is meeting this week before 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.
It's quite possible that Kim Jong-il's
third son, Kim Jong-eun, in his late 20's, hailed
as "supreme leader" and "supreme commander" since
his father's death, will acquire formal titles
needed to buttress his rule. He could, for
instance, be named as general secretary of the
party, a post that would also lead to that of
chairman of the national defense commission, the
real center of power.
Although it's far
from clear how much power Kim Jong-eun really
holds over the small circle of advisers
surrounding him, those titles would 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
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
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 US and North
Korea will get back to dialogue.
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
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.
however, whether North Korea would go through with
a third test in view of the moratorium negotiated
by the US 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
Choi predicted, after the
hullaballoo over the rocket launch is done, that
gradually the US and North Korea would return to
the mode of negotiating a moratorium in exchange
for food aid. The US agreed on February 29 to ship
240,000 tons of food over a 12-month period but
suspended the plan in view of the impending
"North Korea wants to talk to the
US 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 US 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 US
can again start thinking seriously about North
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 US 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".