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North Korea launches missile, Obama responds

The New York Times is reporting:

North Korea defied the United States, China and a series of United Nations resolutions by launching a rocket on Sunday that the country said was designed to propel a satellite into space, but that much of the world viewed as an effort to prove it is edging toward the capability to shoot a nuclear warhead on a longer-range missile.

The launching took place at 11:30 a.m. local time, said an official at the Foreign Ministry of South Korea who spoke on condition of anonymity until the government makes a formal announcement.

The motivation for the test appeared as much political as technological: After acquiring the fuel for six or more nuclear weapons during the Bush administration, and negotiating a halt of its main nuclear reactor in return for aid, North Korea’s recent statements appear to be a bid for attention from the Obama administration.

Over the years the North has sometimes conducted tests as a gambit to extract concessions for more aid and fuel and to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities.

Manufacturing a nuclear warhead that is small enough, light enough and heat-resistant enough to be mounted atop a missile is far more complex than building a basic nuclear device — and intelligence officials and outside experts believe North Korea is still years from that accomplishment. Typically, it takes many years of experimentation for a nation to learn how to shrink an ungainly test device into a slim warhead.

Nonetheless, the series of tests in recent years — in 2006 and 1998 — is prompting fears of North Korean proliferation among Japanese, Chinese and Western leaders. North Korea’s missiles have ranked among its few profitable exports — Iran, Syria and Pakistan have all been among its major customers. If this long-range test ends up a success, it would presumably make the design far more attractive on the international black market.

The launching provides one of the first tests of Mr. Obama’s reaction to a provocation, on the weekend that he is scheduled to lay out for the first time, in a speech in Prague, his strategy to counter proliferation threats.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ruled out any effort to shoot down the missile if the mission appeared to be a serious effort to launch a satellite. Rather, Mr. Obama’s top aides said during last week’s Group of 20 summit meeting in London that if the missile were launched, they would seek additional sanctions against the country in the United Nations Security Council, perhaps as early as this weekend.

President Bush pressed for similar sanctions after the North’s nuclear test in October 2006, but those sanctions had little long-term effect.

“We have made very clear to the North Koreans that their missile launch is provocative,” Mr. Obama said Friday after meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Strasbourg, France. Mr. Obama took the issue up on Wednesday in London with President Hu Jintao of China.

While Washington has signaled calm, the Japanese response has been unusually strong. Japan deployed ships into the Sea of Japan and suggested it would try to shoot down any “debris” from the launching that threatened to hit the country. While that seemed unlikely, the gesture raised concerns that Japan could seek a nuclear capability of its own if it doubted American resolve to disarm North Korea.

With the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly recovering from a stroke last summer, the missile test may also be an effort by him — or some in the military — to demonstrate that someone is firmly in control and that the country’s missile and nuclear programs are forging ahead. In recent times top American intelligence officials have told Congress they believe Mr. Kim is back in charge of the country, but they admit considerable mystery surrounds the question of whether he has regained all of his faculties.

Analysts say the satellite accomplishment will help North Korea claim a kind of technical legitimacy that can inspire fear and respect, giving a modicum of reassurance to a battered people who know they are much poorer than their brethren in the South.

Stephen W. Bosworth, Mr. Obama’s special envoy on North Korea, told reporters that while the United States would seek to punish the North for the test, it was also prepared to resume six-nation talks with North Korea to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program. ”We must deal with North Korea as we find it, not as we would like it to be,” Mr. Bosworth said. “What is required is patience and perseverance.”

In addition to Japan, South Korea, which is in easy reach of North Korean missiles, deployed navy ships with missile tracking radar near North Korea. “We favor sending out a very strong and stern message to the North Koreans that the international community does not condone nor will it accept North Korea engaging in such actions,” President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea told a small group of reporters in London on Friday.

But he, too, emphasized that the six-party talks should resume.

North Korea tried and failed to loft satellites in 1998 and again in 2006.

Western aerospace experts said the new North Korean rocket appeared to be fairly large — much bigger than the one Iran fired in February to launch a small satellite, and about the same size as China launched in 1970 in its space debut.

David C. Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private group in Cambridge, Mass., said the North Korean rocket might be able to lift a small satellite of 220 pounds into an orbit some 250 miles high. If used as a ballistic missile, he added, the rocket might throw a warhead of 2,200 pounds to a distance of some 3,700 miles — far enough to hit parts of Alaska.

Western analysts agree that North Korea’s missile launching is a military endeavor, despite its payload of an experimental communications satellite and its cocoon of North Korean propaganda. Starting with Sputnik in 1957, most of the world’s intercontinental ballistic missiles began life as satellite launchers.

Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, told reporters in March that “North Korea is attempting to demonstrate an ICBM capability through a space launch.”

While many analysts have looked at the launching through a military lens, some say another perspective involves political rivalries on the Korean peninsula. For years, South Korea has been gearing up to fire a satellite into orbit and join the space club. Its spaceport of Oinarodo is nearly ready, but a launching scheduled for this month was delayed, giving North Korea an opening.

“They’re racing to beat the South Koreans,” said Tim Brown, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a private group in Alexandria, Va.

President Obama released the following statement:

North Korea’s development and proliferation of ballistic missile technology pose a threat to the northeast Asian region and to international peace and security. The launch today of a Taepo-dong 2 missile was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which expressly prohibits North Korea from conducting ballistic missile-related activities of any kind. With this provocative act, North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint, and further isolated itself from the community of nations.

We will immediately consult with our allies in the region, including Japan and the Republic of Korea, and members of the U.N. Security Council to bring this matter before the Council. I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and to refrain from further provocative actions.

Preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery is a high priority for my administration. The United States is fully committed to maintaining security and stability in northeast Asia and we will continue working for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through the Six-Party Talks. The Six-Party Talks provide the forum for achieving denuclearization, reducing tensions, and for resolving other issues of concern between North Korea, its four neighbors, and the United States. North Korea has a pathway to acceptance in the international community, but it will not find that acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and abides by its international obligations and commitments.

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Welcome! Who am I?



Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.