News / Asia

North Korea Launch Plan Alarms Region

U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea Sung Y. Kim. (2011 File)
U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea Sung Y. Kim. (2011 File)
North Korea's anticipated ballistic missile launch this month is already drawing reaction from its neighbors and the United States.

Ambassadors of the United States, China, Japan and Russia met separately Monday with South Korean Foreign Ministry officials to strategize.

U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim left the meeting saying he had "no comment."

Later, however, the US Embassy released a statement from the Ambassador concerning his meeting with  Presidential Secretary for Foreign Affairs and National Security Chun Young-woo, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ahn Ho-young, and Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Lim Sung-nam.  
"Any North Korean launch using ballistic missile technology is in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874," the statement said. "We call on North Korea to comply fully with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions."

The Chinese ambassador to South Korea, Zhang Xinsen, described the talks with Foreign Ministry officials as "in depth and wide ranging discussions on issues of mutual concern" that included "current matters on the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea maintains the launch is a peaceful attempt to place a satellite into orbit. But the U.S. State Department Saturday said a launch would be a “highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region.”

Pyongyang moves closer to launch

The Seoul talks took place as word came North Korea had placed the first stage of its Unha-3 on the launch pad at the Tongchang-ri facility.

The semi-official Yonhap news agency attributes the information to an unnamed South Korean government source.

North Korea on Saturday through its official news agency said a launch would be conducted this month as the country's Committee for Space Technology had “analyzed the mistakes” from April's failed launch and improved the precision and reliability of the Unha-3 rocket and the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite.

North Korea “must immediately retract its plan and heed the international society's request” because the launch would be a “grave provocative act,” said South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk at a Monday briefing for reporters.

In China, which is North Korea's sole significant supporter, the official tone is milder. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei says Beijing  has expressed concern about the planned launch.

“The DPRK [North Korea] is entitled to the peaceful use of outer space but is also subject to relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Hong said.

One of the resolutions prohibits North Korea from continuing all activities related to ballistic missiles. Aerospace experts argue the technology to place a satellite into space is the same as that for developing such missiles.

Japan reacts

North Korea's launch plan has prompted Japan to postpone a second round of talks with North Korean officials that were to be held this week in Beijing. The discussion was to center on the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents over decades.

Japan is moving Patriot anti-ballistic missiles to the southern Ryukyu islands to be ready to shoot down the North Korean rocket should it veer off course.

Local Japanese media report that Aegis warships will move into neighboring waters.  And Japan's defense minister, Satosghi Morimoto, has announced ground, marine and air forces are preparing to deploy on the Okinawan island.

This is similar to preparations Japan took prior to North Korea's last attempt, on April 13, which ended with the three-stage Unha-3 rocket disintegrating over the Yellow Sea minutes after lift-off.

But Japan failed, as promised, to promptly notify the public of the launch through a new sophisticated warning system, known as J-Alert.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says that will not happen again.

“We will make efforts so that the correction is available to the Japanese people,” Noda said Monday in a group interview.

Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan are fighting for their political survival in a nationwide parliamentary election to be held December 16.

North Korea's announced launch window is from December 10-22 (between 7 a.m. and noon local time). Some analysts predict a blastoff on December 17, the first anniversary of the death of leader Kim Jong Il.

If this one succeeds, it would give the North a significant propaganda victory over the more prosperous South, which has so far failed on its own to put a satellite into space.

“If North Korea successfully launches a satellite it can publicize that the level of their space technology is higher than South Korea's. But I am skeptical whether the North's space technology will pose a serious threat to the South's national security,” says Professor Ryoo Kihl-jae, at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

 Seoul politics

A more immediate impact is likely to be felt on South Korea's presidential election on December 19 to select a successor to conservative Lee Myung-bak who is limited to a single five-year term.

Some analysts see another North Korean provocation so close to the election giving a boost to conservative Park Geun-hye of the incumbent Saenuri Party, who polls indicate has a slight lead over Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic United Party.

“North Korea’s act will not have a big impact on South Korea’s presidential election, and if it does have any effect it will be positive for Park campaign,” says Professor Ryoo.

Liberal South Korean governments prior to Lee's election pursued a “sunshine policy” towards Pyongyang, hoping engagement would lessen tensions. But North Korea's nuclear and missile programs in the last few years have further isolated it from the international community.

Relations with South Korea also have further deteriorated because of military attacks Seoul blames on Pyongyang.

The two Koreas have no diplomatic ties and still technically remain at war after a 1953 armistice, but no peace treaty ever being signed.

Youmi Kim in the VOA bureau in Seoul contributed to this report.

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