Will Missile Tests Lead to New Talks?

Although it may raise regional tensions in the short run, Wednesday’s test-firing by North Korea of at least seven missiles, including its multi-stage, inter-continental Taepodong-2 rocket, could speed resumption of long-stalled diplomatic efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear-arms program, according to some experts here.

Indeed, initial reactions from Washington and other capitals, while strongly negative, suggested a renewed determination to get the so-called Six-Party Talks, which have been boycotted by Pyongyang to protest financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. last fall, back on the rails.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who emphasized Wednesday that the Six-Party Talks was the "diplomatic infrastructure" for resolving problems with Pyongyang, dispatched her top Asia aide, Chris Hill, to the region to consult on next steps.

According to officials and independent experts here, the North’s decision to go ahead with the tests in the face of the explicit opposition of South Korea and China is likely to result in stronger pressure from its two most important sources of aid and diplomatic support to rejoin the talks, which also include Japan and Russia.

"Now, others in the Six-Party Talks, particularly China and South Korea, are likely to be more with us than they have been in the past," said Alan Romberg, an Asia specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a global security think tank here. "So maybe this is the time and opportunity to agree on terms about what it will take to get the talks going again."

Moreover, the apparent failure of the Taepodong-2 launch – it plunged into the Sea of Japan less than one minute after launch – will likely reassure officials and public opinion here, in particular, that the North remains a long way from being able to threaten the United States.

"The Taepodong obviously was a failure – that tells you something about capabilities," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Tuesday evening in a series of statements by senior officials that appeared calculated both to downplay the threat and emphasize the importance of diplomacy and resuming the Six-Party Talks.

The missile’s failure may also weaken military hardliners in Pyongyang who are believed to have argued that a successful test would enhance the North’s leverage and raise the price that the other five parties would be willing to pay to get it to rejoin the talks, according to some experts.

"If they believed that a test would strengthen their position, then they made a serious mistake," said one administration official, who asked not to be identified.

The tests, which also included the launch of a number of short- and mid-range missiles, followed warnings by the Bush administration beginning last month that Pyongyang was preparing its first launch of a long-range missile since 1998, when it sent a three-stage rocket over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean more than 3,000 mi. away.

That test provoked shock and alarm among the North’s neighbors, particularly Japan, which has been most sympathetic to the Bush administration’s hardline views toward Pyongyang within the Six-Party Talks.

Indeed, it was Tokyo that Wednesday was the first to announce economic sanctions – including a ban on ferry traffic between North Korea and Japan – against Pyongyang for carrying out the tests. Tokyo also took the lead in requesting an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Wednesday.

The responses from China and South Korea, Pyongyang’s chief defenders, were more muted, although Seoul had warned last week that it would reduce humanitarian and economic assistance if Pyongyang went ahead, and Wednesday put its military on high alert.

For its part, China, whose prime minister explicitly warned Kim against a test just last week, appealed for all sides to "remain calm and exercise restraint" but added, "We are seriously concerned about the incident that has already happened."

"The Chinese have been working hard to make sure [Pyongyang] didn’t do this, and they certainly will be embarrassed," Romberg told IPS. "But their eye is still on the ball of the Six-Party Talks and figuring out how to devise a [face-saving] process that would get the U.S. and North Korea back to the table."

Wednesday’s tests appeared directed primarily at Washington. Not only did they take place on the Fourth of July, the day that the U.S. celebrates its independence from Great Britain with fireworks displays, but the first launch also occurred just minutes after the latest U.S. space shuttle mission – the first in a year – blasted off from its Florida launch pad.

"North Korea clearly chose the Fourth of July as a date it knew would irritate and provoke the U.S. and ‘show the world’ it could not be intimidated by American demands to halt its tests," according to Anthony Cordesman, an arms expert at the Washington headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While North Korea’s defiance of international pressure may indeed have isolated it in the short run, wrote Cordesman in a policy brief Wednesday, its presumably successful testing of short- and medium-range missiles along with the Taepodong-2 also served to remind its neighbors and Washington that it remains a serious threat to regional security.

"North Korea may or may not face a few hard weeks or months in reprisal, but it has reminded everyone of just how serious a threat [it] can be, how limited most military options are, and how serious the risks of any major war would be," according to Cordesman, who took issue with media and official characterizations of the tests as "reckless" or "irrational."

"One ought not make too little of the shorter-range tests," agreed Romberg. "Those missiles actually could have greater military utility than long-range missiles. If the North is honing their accuracy and extending their range and payload, one should be quite concerned about where they are heading on that front, as well."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.