Policy Alert: North Korean Missile Test Launches Debate Among Rising Powers
One month after conducting a nuclear test, North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket on February 7th from its Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Pyongyang claimed the launch was a peaceful earth observation satellite, but the United States, South Korea, and other powers quickly condemned it as a provocative and destabilizing ballistic missile test in violation of UN resolutions. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice called on the “international community to stand together and demonstrate to North Korea that its reckless actions must have serious consequences.” China, however, remains unwilling to back stronger sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and prefers a return to the negotiation table. In this Policy Alert, we explore the reactions of South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, India, and Brazil to the launch and their proposals to resolve nuclear weapons and missile challenges on the Korean Peninsula.
President Park Geun-hye strongly criticized the missile launch as an “intolerable provocation,” positing the North’s missile program is “all about maintaining the regime” in Pyongyang. Park’s deputy chief of national security, Cho Tae-yong, pledged “the government will continue to put necessary pressure on North Korea so that North Korea has no other choice but to change.” South Korean intelligence agencies reportedly have evidence North Korea plans another nuclear test in the near future.
With the National Assembly passing a resolution denouncing the launch, officials in Seoul outlined their response to the latest DPRK move.
- The government played its “ultimate card” against the North by suspending the operations of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint plant launched in 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. According to a senior South Korean official, Seoul received pressures from the United States, Japan, Russia, and even China to make that decision. For its part, North Korea called the suspension a “dangerous declaration of war” and vowed to sever crisis hotline communications with South Korea.
- South Korea said it would continue broadcasts of anti-Pyongyang propaganda through loudspeakers along the border.
- Seoul also announced it would start formal discussions with Washington to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. While 70 percent of the South Korean public showed support for the announcement, North Korea, Russia, and especially China protested the decision.
- In addition, the United States sent the USS North Carolina – a nuclear-powered submarine – into South Korean waters to “reassert its commitment to the defense of South Korea.”
Korean newspapers debated the government’s response to the missile launch.
- The Korea Times supported the suspension of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, saying the North’s provocation left the South “no other choice.” This will not only give President Park “maneuvering room” against the North, the paper wrote, but also pressure the United States and China to follow suit.
- The Korea Herald agreed, suggesting the suspension will “make the North realize that it has to pay a high price for its unwarranted provocations.” It also supported the THAAD deployment, calling it “inevitable” for national defense. China “should understand” it is a matter of South Korean strategic necessity even if Beijing worries the system could be used against Chinese missiles.
- Oh Young-jin, The Korea Times‘ chief editorial writer, questioned whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella is sufficient to deter the North, asking whether a preemptive strike is necessary to destroy North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities before it is too late.
- Hankyoreh opposed these countermeasures, calling the closing of Kaesong a “mistake” since it will hurt South Korean companies and accomplish nothing other than raising tensions. The paper further argued THHAD deployment will antagonize Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow while reviving and perpetuating “Cold War confrontation” between this bloc and a coalition of South Korea, United States, and Japan.
- “No matter how severe they are, sanctions won’t resolve the nuclear and missile issues,” reasoned JoongAng Ilbo. The “only way forward” is to stop the countermeasures in return for a nuclear moratorium, establish diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States, and form a peace treaty to replace the armistice.
- Kwon Seijin, a professor at the KAIST, said North Korea with only nuclear weapons is “not that intimidating,” but if they possess both long-range rockets and nuclear warheads, “it becomes a global issue.”
In the lead up to the launch, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang warned North Korea that while it had a “right to make peaceful use of space,” Pyongyang was still “subject to restrictions of the Security Council resolutions” and a missile test would destabilize the region. He stressed Beijing would neither “allow war or instability on the Peninsula” nor “allow any country to pursue its selfish gains while the international community is working for the target of denuclearization.” Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with his counterpart in South Korea and called on all parties to solve the crisis through dialogue and consultation.
Several commentators condemned the rocket launch as dangerous for the region and counterproductive for North Korea, though a number of experts doubted even China could bring Pyongyang around to this view.
- “The launch is part of North Korea’s military plan as it has to enhance its ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons and advance missile carriers,” said Gao Fei, a professor of Russian studies at the China Foreign Affairs University. Nevertheless, Gao did not expect the United States and its allies go beyond issuing tough statements due to the risks conflict would entail for Seoul.
- Lu Chao, professor at Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, wondered if China could have ever stopped the DPRK’s latest effort to become a more established nuclear weapons state, especially in the lead-up to the seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea later this May where Kim Jong-un wants to strengthen his hold on power. Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee, seconded this.
- The Global Times cautioned Pyongyang against continuing its nuclear and missile programs because “it is too weak to direct how the situation will evolve. If it does spiral out of control, North Korea will be the first to be crushed.” The editorial concluded the DPRK will “face a depressing situation for a long time to come” without ever achieving its strategic and national goals.
- Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China was “deeply concerned” at the announcement of talks to expand U.S. theater missile defense systems in South Korea, saying the deployment could escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and destabilize the situation. Foreign Vice-Minister Liu Zhenmin, retired colonel Yue Gang, China Arms Control and Disarmament Association senior research Xu Guangyu, and The Global Times echoed this viewpoint and argued Chinese missiles would be inevitably be targeted for interception by the U.S. defenses.
Others debated the possibility and value of further Chinese sanctions on its historical ally.
- Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, maintained crippling sanctions were not a priority for Beijing and instead pushed for a UN resolution to “do the work of reducing tension, of working toward denuclearization, of maintaining peace and stability, and of encouraging a negotiated solution.”
- When asked if the latest missile test was a “slap in the face” of sanctions opponents like China, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang countered that “the DPRK started nuclear testing and conducted them over and over again” despite previous calls for sanctions in the Six Party Talks. “In this sense,” he said, “the DPRK did slap the relevant country across the face. As to whose face the DPRK slapped, the country itself knows well.”
- In contrast, The Global Times sensed Chinese society “supports the government to strengthen sanctions over North Korea” and thus pressed leaders in Beijing to “strike a balance between sanctions and preventing a Pyongyang collapse.”
A number of media outlets and Chinese analysts questioned whether the latest rocket launch would actually help the DPRK advance nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
- Since Pyongyang would be unable to recover the missile after its launch, Gao Fei observed the test may not result in the type of launch data necessary to develop a missile that could threaten the United States.
- The Global Times urged North Korea to not try to follow China’s nuclear path, which predates the existence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime and required large amounts of territory, technological prowess, and economic resources to develop advanced warheads, delivery systems, and a real nuclear deterrent.
- The Global Times also believed the satellite launch would not result in an effective long-range ballistic missile due to differences in the rockets’ fuel type, guidance package, and test parameters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the rocket launch as “totally intolerable.” After placingits armed forces on high alert, the government issued new unilateral sanctions and called for a new UN Security Council resolution against the Kim regime. The defense chiefs for United States, South Korea, and Japan agreed to enhance the sharing of intelligence and the coordination of security efforts in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Japanese newspapers unanimously criticized the missile test and discussed potential countermeasures.
- Given the history of North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests and missile launches, “[i]t is obvious that previous sanctions are not sufficient,” claimed Yomiuri Shimbun. “China should no longer avoid imposing sanctions on North Korea… and should cooperate with the UN Security Council to adopt strong sanctions.” Furthermore, the newspaper held Washington needs to adjust its policy of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang and “exercise its leadership.”
- The Japan Times expressed a similar view, arguing Beijing and Washington “need to seriously consider what has been lacking in their approaches toward North Korea.” Sankei Shimbun also criticized Beijing and Moscow for blocking stronger UN sanctions.
- Editorials in Yomiuri Shimbun, Nikkei Shimbun, and Sankei Shimbun showed support for additional sanctions by the Japanese government and the UN Security Council. They also called for strengthening U.S.-Japanese-South Korean trilateral defense cooperation, particularly on missile defense systems and the exercise of Japan’s collective self-defense rights.
- Yoichi Shimada, a professor at Fukui Prefectural University, argued Japan “cannot rely” on the United States to address the threat posed by North Korea to Japan. Instead, the island’s self-defense force must take unilateral measures, including the acquisition of sea-launched cruise missiles to preemptively attack North Korean missile launchers in the event of a crisis.
- “Sanctions are necessary, but such measures alone would not prevent North Korea from taking reckless actions,” contended Mainichi Shimbun. “It is necessary to encourage Pyongyang to participate in multilateral consultations and discourage the country from taking provocative acts.”
- Asahi Shimbun agreed, emphasizing Japan, South Korea, and the United States must use both dialogue and pressure to influence North Korea’s actions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the missile launch as an “unacceptable” violation of international law that could lead to “serious aggravation” on the Peninsula. However, the ministry stressed “the need to refrain from any unilateral steps that could lead to further development of tensions in the region.”
Russian officials commented on ways to resolve the crisis and responded to allegations of collaborating with North Korea.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, emphasizing “the importance of political and diplomatic settlement.”
- Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov also shared Russia’s official view with China’s ambassador to Russia, Lee Huei, saying “any response measures should not lead to the deterioration of the situation. This is our position and we share it with our Chinese partners. We have identical approaches to this problem with China, there are no gaps between us.” The two governments also confirmed they share approaches to the issue of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
- Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin denied allegations made by South Korean media that Russia provided North Korea with rocket production technology as “complete nonsense.”
- Russia’s ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Timonin, stressed Russia is opposed to the deployment of the U.S. THAAD system in South Korea, saying such deployment could destabilize the region’s security. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the placement could “provoke an arms race in Northeast Asia.”
Russian military experts and officials were at odds with the imminence of the North Korean threat.
- Aleksey Podberyozkin, head of the Military-Political Center at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, warned the flight path of the North Korean missiles is so “unpredictable” that “there are still no effective means of intercepting” them. He added any additional sanctions by the UN “will have no effects on Pyongyang” because the North Korean public will still remain loyal to the regime.
- Army General Yuri Baluyevsky downplayed the North Korean threat. “I believe that in Pyongyang there are no crazies who would dare launch a nuclear warhead with an experimental missile,” he said. According to his estimation, “Pyongyang currently has the lowest level nuclear weapon of the kind the Soviet Union had back in the late 1950s.”
India’s External Affairs Ministry expressed “deep concern” about the DPRK’s rocket launch and called on Pyongyang to refrain from these types of actions that “adversely affect peace and stability in the region.” Recognizing every nation’s “right to exploit outer space for peaceful purposes,” the ministry underscored the need for launch activity to “be in accordance with international obligations.”
The Brazilian government joined the international community in condemning North Korea’s rocket launch.
- Itamaraty, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry released a statement “urging the DPRK to refrain from actions which prevent the option of dialogue and diplomatic negotiation” before calling on Pyongyang “to retake the Six-Party Talks and to reintegrate itself as soon as possible back into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty framework” and to “sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.