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DONG Yong-Sueng

North Korea Seeks More Than US Attention

DONG Yong-Sueng

Apr. 17, 2009

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Although there is serious doubt that North Korea put a satellite into orbit on April 5, there is no dispute that it achieved successful separation of the second and third stages of the rocket, demonstrating a step toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. That is enough to keep Pyongyang from slipping off the radar of the international community, just what the North wants.

The UN Security Council has issued a statement condemning the launch, saying that it contravenes Security Council Resolution 1718 of 2006, which bars North Korea from testing ballistic missile technology. Seoul, Washington and Tokyo had sought a council resolution, a tougher measure, but China and Russia urged restrain to avoid jeopardizing the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea. Nevertheless, the statement was accompanied by calls to expand sanctions of the 2006 resolution, which target organizations and companies that assist Pyongyang's missile development.

Why would North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il defy international discouragement of the rocket launch knowing that it risked harsh global reaction? It is too high a price to launch a communications satellite if the North's purpose is believed. A look at events leading up to the launch provides some clues.

First, the North Korean regime needed to solidify its internal grip. At the recent first session of the 12 th Supreme People's Assembly in March, the National Defense Commission was significantly expanded with Jang Sung-Taek, husband of Kim's younger sister, bestowed a senior position. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August (he looked markedly thinner and paler in post-launch government photos) and the election and seating of the Assembly was delayed for months. The Pyongyang regime used the delay as an opportunity to ferret and remove anyone who seemed to have the slightest antipathy toward the regime. The house cleaning helps pave the way for a smooth power transition, which must be on Kim's given his fragile health.

Another intention behind the rocket launch was diplomatic relations. North Korea is eager to improve relations with the United States and the rocket was regarded internationally as way to get US officials to the negotiating table, outside the six-party talks. But a broader context should be considered. The primary motive for the launch lay outside a thaw in Pyongyang-Washington relations. The launch gained global attention, and North Korea wanted to show Kim swaying worldwide politics and manipulating the United States.

It is also necessary to watch Pyongyang's approach to China and Russia. In the past, the North actively tried to disrupt policy coordination between the South and the United States. However, it seems to be seeking an alliance between China, Russia and itself in response to South Korea-US coordination, which has strengthened since the inauguration of the Lee Myung-Bak administration. The North must now want to enhance its value and gain security guarantees it had during the Cold War under a confrontational structure pitting its neighbors and itself against Seoul and Washington.

Of note is the fact that there were signs of rocket launch preparation in North Pyongan Province. Large-scale rocket facilities are under construction there, and that unsettles Beijing. The April 5 launch was from North Hamgyong Province, near the northern tip of the East Korea Bay. The launch was relocated to prompt China into doing what the North wants.

If North Korea wants to recreate the atmosphere of the Cold War, it is wishful thinking and anachronistic. Given the relations between the United States and China, and triangular relationship of South Korea, Japan and China, the confrontational structure that the North would welcome is unlikely to be formed. To be sure, to prevent another rocket launch, South Korea needs to seek cooperation with Russia and China within the framework of South Korea-US-Japan policy coordination. This suggests coordinated effort by members of the six-party talks to restrain Pyongyang rather than allow the North to turn themselves against each other.

The North simply needs to move toward the future, not try to return to the past. As long as the North does not change, the livelihood of North Korean residents will become increasingly worse and the regime will be more isolated.

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