North Korea’s test-firing of a stream of missiles harmlessly into the sea appeared to be a military failure, but it achieved one important objective for Pyongyang: It got worldwide attention.
The public way the North prepared for the tests and their timing — the Fourth of July, during a launch of a U.S. space shuttle — indicated the isolated state was eager to make itself the focus of global diplomacy and Washington’s attention after months of seeing Iran take center stage with its nuclear program.
“They chose their day very interestingly,” said Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “This was a curious coincidence with the launch of the shuttle from Cape Canaveral.”
Assessing North Korean motives is always risky, but the consensus is that the isolated regime is eager to draw Washington into direct talks — something the U.S. has refused — and figures posing a threat is a good way to achieve that.
After all, Pyongyang shocked the world by firing a long-range missile over northern Japan in 1998. Two years later, leader Kim Jong Il was basking in a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Much less impressive
But times have changed. Not only has the Bush administration taken a harder line with Pyongyang, but Wednesday’s test — in which a long-range missile apparently imploded 35 seconds after launch — was much less impressive than the 1998 display.
The U.S. has already spurned North Korea’s call for direct talks, instead urging Pyongyang to rejoin six-party nuclear talks. Those talks have been stalled since last year by a North Korean boycott in protest of a U.S. crackdown on the country’s alleged counterfeiting, money-laundering and other wrongdoing. The other parties are China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
Michael Green, President Bush’s senior adviser on Asia until December and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for a stern response to the tests.
“Now is the time for the other parties to put pressure on North Korea, to impose consequences and to make it very clear that these kinds of provocations will only further isolate North Korea,” he said.
Still, others point out that options may be limited.
Immediate harsh action not expected
The North Korean regime has braved famine, economic deprivation and diplomatic isolation without caving in before, and its No. 1 patron, China, may block tough pressure against Pyongyang.
Even with Japan and the United States pressing for a U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday on the issue, few people expected members to take immediate harsh action.
“China is likely to oppose any imposition of sanctions on North Korea over this problem, so I think the process will ultimately be inconclusive,” said Takashi Shiraishi, an East Asian affairs expert at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
It was equally unclear what the test tells the world about the state of North Korea’s weapons delivery program. The fizzling of what is believed to have been a long-range Taepodong-2 suggested the North Koreans are far from perfecting technology needed to hit the United States with a warhead.
Still, the tests could be an advertisement of sorts, meant to attract interest from potential buyers of North Korean missile technology. North Korea is already a major exporter of weapons, including missiles. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, North Korea has reportedly sold missile technology to Iran, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.
“Even if the Taepodong-2 test launch was a failure as suspected, there is the possibility that it was ‘successful enough’ if we think ahead to the next two years or so,” said Shiraishi.
“If we don’t deal with the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons during that time, then that could be enough time for the North to enable their missile to carry a nuclear warhead and then we would have a truly serious situation,” he added.
Speculation on failure
There was some speculation the North feared the long-range missile would fail, which is why the country also fired off several more reliable shorter-range missiles to provide some successes.
And, given the crafty nature of North Korean diplomacy, there is also the possibility the Taepodong’s “failure” was staged to allow Pyongyang to defy the world with the test of a long-range missile, but not to let it fly so far as to trigger a military response from the U.S.
“The fact that they went down so far away from Japan is not quite as shocking to the Americans and Japanese as it might have been if they had come close,” Kensuke Ehata, a Tokyo-based defense analyst, told Japanese national broadcaster NHK.
Despite the wide condemnation of the missile launches, some said the world has no choice but to engage the regime and lure it out of isolation as a way of making it less dangerous and more predictable.
Albright, who met with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000, said the missile launches illustrate how the Bush administration needs to review its approach to North Korea. She also urged the development of anti-missile defenses.
“Although the Taepodong failed, it certainly has given the North Koreans an opportunity to learn a lot about what they have in terms of their missile technology,” she told CNN.