The international community is discussing ways to react to North Korea's test launching of ballistic missiles earlier this week. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what might have triggered Pyongyang's action and what the tests may mean for the ongoing talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Several days ago, North Korea test launched several ballistic missiles, including the Taepodong-2, a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching the western United States. But 40 seconds into its flight, the missile exploded and fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan.
This was the first North Korean test of a long-range missile since 1998 when Pyongyang fired an intermediate-range Taepodong-1 over Japan.
The latest launch brought international condemnation, although North Korea has stated it has the right to conduct such tests. Officials in Pyongyang said they were "routine military exercises" destined to enhance the nation's "capacity for self-defense."
Many experts see the North Korean action as more than just a military statement. One of those is Jim Walsh, a security and nuclear weapons expert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the past few years, he has traveled to North Korea, meeting with senior officials.
"First and foremost this is a political act more than a military act," he said. "It's really meant not so much to collect data about missiles, as it is to put pressure on the international community to focus on Korea and the Korean nuclear crisis. In recent months, international attention has been drawn to Iran or to Iraq or to other parts of the world, and this is North Korea standing up and saying, 'Hey! Pay attention to me over here.'"
Many experts believe the missile test is aimed at forcing the United States into face-to-face talks with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program. But Washington has said it will continue to participate in the negotiating forum known as the six-party talks, bringing together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. For the past several years, Washington has been using that forum to try to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.
But Adam Ward, an Asian security expert with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the six-party talks have stalled since late last year - despite a September joint statement signed by all parties.
"What it did was, in theory, commit the North Koreans to the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program and it also imposes a number of obligations on other countries to think about ways in which political progress of a kind could be made on the peninsula," said Mr. Ward. "But it became clear very quickly that although the joint statement had been a sort of masterpiece of diplomatic drafting, it was a bit defective as an instance of diplomacy, because the only basis on which it was possible to reach this joint statement was that everybody had their own interpretation of what exactly it meant. And it became clear very quickly that, actually, the North Korean and the American positions were still diametrically opposed."
Ward says the six-party talks have to address some key issues.
"The first is if there is going to be a disarmament process, what should be the sequence? Who would do what, when? Should the North Koreans disarm first and then expect to be rewarded, or should the North Koreans expect some incentives up front and then take some steps on the basis of that? There was also ambiguity as to whether North Korea does in fact have a uranium enrichment program in addition to its program to produce weapons-grade plutonium. That was, as it were, finessed," he added.
Analysts say the international community must first decide how to respond to the North Korean missile launches before continuing to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program within the context of the six-party talks.
The United Nations Security Council members are working on a resolution condemning North Korea's missile tests. But analysts question whether it will be a tough one that would, as some members want, include punitive measures against Pyongyang. China and Russia have expressed their opposition to strong measures.
Jim Walsh, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says how China reacts is crucial. Beijing provides economic assistance to North Korea, but Walsh says the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is a complicated one.
"When I was in North Korea, it was clear to me that the North Koreans have a love-hate relationship toward the Chinese," said Mr. Walsh. "They feel an emotional and historical bond to China. It's a relationship born in history and blood. On the other hand, they see themselves as a little country surrounded by giants. They don't want the U.S. and China to come up with some sort of deal that leaves them out in the cold, so they are wary and suspicious."
Experts say it will be interesting to see whether the final text of the U.N. resolution retains the threat of sanctions against North Korea, or be watered down by Chinese and Russian concerns that punitive measures would inflame tensions in the region.