North Korea is throwing a party this week, and it’s bound to upset all its neighbors. The isolated authoritarian regime says it plans to put a weather satellite into orbit some time between April 12 and 16 as part of celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of the nation’s late President Kim Il Sung. Even if the launch fails, as did previous attempts in 1998 and 2009, North Korea is expected to claim success in domestic propaganda as a means of boosting the stature of its young leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December.
The U.S. says the launch is the equivalent of a ballistic-missile test. That would make it a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and a Feb. 29 deal under which the U.S. would provide food to North Korea in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program and a halt on long-range-missile launches. As a result the North Korean people, who face perennial food shortages and would have received 20,000 metric tons of aid per month under the failed “Leap Day” deal, are once again victims of their government’s ballistic brinkmanship. The Obama Administration will lose out too, as the failed deal will give Republicans ammunition to criticize the White House’s willingness to talk to Pyongyang.
South Korea and Japan are near the flight path of the launch and have threatened to shoot down the North Korean missile if it approaches their territory. South Korean intelligence officials have told domestic and foreign media that satellite images indicate the North could be preparing for a third nuclear test. That would follow the pattern of 2009, when the authoritarian state followed up its failed satellite launch with its second nuclear test. Other worried neighbors include Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia, which could all find debris falling on their territory if the missile deviates from its course, a distinct possibility, given North Korea’s spotty launch record.
North Korea’s launch could also burn its only significant ally, China. China has long hosted and promoted the on-again, off-again six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Two years ago, Beijing proposed emergency consultations as a way to restart those talks, which were halted in 2009 after North Korea attempted to launch a satellite and then tested a nuclear device. Recently, China has been active in facilitating the “Leap Year” deal, including sending Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying to Pyongyang for consultations on food aid shortly before the agreement with the U.S. was announced. “That gives an indication of how invested they were in this mini-rapprochement with North Korea and the U.S.,” says John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea. “Then that failed. I think they are frustrated and disappointed.”
While in Seoul for a nuclear-security summit last month, President Obama asked Chinese President Hu Jintao to persuade North Korea to call off its launch plans. While China does have significant leverage over North Korea as its largest benefactor, trading partner and arms dealer, its ultimate interest is stability in North Korea. Thus it has been unwilling to take any step that might undermine the North Korean regime. That has been particularly clear in recent years, as Beijing has refrained from harsh criticism of Pyongyang, even after its forces sank a South Korean warship and shelled a South Korean island in 2010. “If North Korea goes forward with its rocket launch, it will present a harsh test on the soft approach China has taken toward North Korea since 2009,” says Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing. “It will mean that China’s soft approach hasn’t yielded expected results and that China has little influence on North Korea when it comes to major issues. It means that China’s soft policy toward North Korea has partially failed.”
So far, though, Beijing is still putting a positive face on its relations with Pyongyang. After the North’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea named Kim Jong Un first secretary at a meeting on Wednesday (his father was named “general secretary for eternity”), Hu sent the 29-year-old leader a message of congratulations. Hu said that China would join with North Korea “in furthering their traditional friendship, expanding pragmatic cooperation in various fields and promoting lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” the state-run Xinhua news service reported. The soft approach may not be working with North Korea, but China doesn’t sound like it’s ready to change.
— With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing