By Simon Mundy in Seoul (FT): China has expressed “deep concern” at North Korea’s plan to launch a ballistic missile in December, but called on all sides to “keep a cool head”.
North Korea on Saturday said it would attempt to put a satellite into orbit between December 10 and 22. The announcement further dashed hopes that Kim Jong-eun might improve relations with the US and South Korea.
KCNA, the North Korean state media agency, stressed the “peaceful” nature of the launch, saying Pyongyang would “fully comply with relevant international regulations”.
The announcement drew immediate condemnation from the US, South Korea and Japan. North Korea is banned from using ballistic missile technology under a UN Security Council resolution imposed after it conducted a nuclear test in 2006.
Washington believes North Korea’s satellite programme is aimed at developing long-range rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the US mainland.
The latest move will add to disillusionment in the Obama administration, which hoped to eliminate the North Korean threat through diplomacy.
In February, the two countries signed a deal in which North Korea pledged to suspend its nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for food aid.
But the agreement was shattered in April when North Korea carried out an unsuccessful rocket launch to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s first leader.
The timing of this month’s attempt also appears symbolic, with the one-year anniversary of the death of the late dictator Kim Jong-il coming on December 17.
A successful launch would have additional propaganda value after South Korea on Thursday was forced to abandon an effort to put its first satellite into space. It would also boost the standing of Kim Jong-eun, who was embarrassed in April after inviting foreign journalists to watch what ultimately was an unsuccessful satellite launch.
The move could also impact South Korea’s December 19 presidential election, by putting the spotlight on the candidates’ policies towards the North.
Pyongyang has criticised Park Geun-hye, the conservative New Frontier party candidate and daughter of a former president whom it repeatedly tried to assassinate.
North Korean state media on Saturday accused Ms Park of “contradictory words” and “deceptive commitments” over her policy that large-scale economic co-operation should be linked to concessions by Pyongyang in its nuclear programme.
Yet, ironically, a provocation so close to the election could boost Ms Park’s chances. Her main challenger, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United party, was a senior official in the liberal administration of 2003 to 2008, which faced criticism for a perceived failure to take a tough stance towards Pyongyang. Mr Moon has vowed to revive top-level talks and unconditional aid payments to the North.
Ahn Byung-jin, a professor at Kyunghee Cyber University, said both candidates would feel pressure to demonstrate their leadership with a firm but measured response to the launch.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who leaves office in February, abandoned the “Sunshine Policy” pursued during the previous decade that was based on energetic diplomacy and generous financial assistance.
North Korea has conducted three long-range missile launches, a nuclear test and two lethal military attacks during the rule of Mr Lee, whom it regularly decries as a “rat” and a “traitor”.
John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, said a successful satellite launch this month could provide a platform for better relations with the next South Korean administration by getting the provocative act “out of the way” before February.
“It’s a box they have to tick,” said Mr Delury.
But South Korea’s next president could face tense discussions with Washington if Seoul attempts a radical overhaul of policy towards North Korea.
Since the failed rocket launch in April, the US has hardened its stance on North Korea. The UN Security Council – under US presidency – tightened sanctions against companies and people linked to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
But Washington may struggle to win support from China for a significant toughening of sanctions.
Beijjing – a longstanding ally and economic backer of Pyongyang – is reluctant to withdraw support. It wants to avoid a North Korean regime collapse which would send a flood of refugees into China, and result in the emergence of a unified Korea allied to the US. It also views North Korea’s ports as important to its hopes of driving growth in China’s landlocked northeast.
A Chinese delegation on Friday presented Kim Jong-eun with a letter from Xi Jinping, the new Chinese Communist party leader and incoming president, according to North Korean state media.
“I don’t see signs of China fundamentally changing its policy on North Korea,” said Daniel Pinkston, an expert on the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group. “There are limits to what [the US] can impose and enforce.”
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in Beijing
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