The security situation on the Korean Peninsula has fallen into a foggy hole again as North Korea attempted the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite. Though the launch failed, it does not change the assessment that North Korea seriously violated the UN Security Council’s resolutions which ban the North from using ballistic missile technology. As North Korea's satellite launch has consistently deteriorated security anxiety, dragging down the security situation on the Korean Peninsula to the worst level in some time, crafting a smart response should be an urgent task for the South Korean government.
North Korea first launched a satellite in August 1998. The Korean Peninsula was seized with another round of fear that a war might begin again as some hard-line politicians in the US called for canceling the Agreed Framework between North Korea and the US in 1994. Another satellite launch in April 2009 led to a vicious cycle of provocations and sanctions surrounding North Korean nuclear issue. While US President Barack Obama delivered a touching speech about "a world without nuclear weapons" in Prague, North Korea launched a space rocket that the South Korean and the US governments called a long-range missile. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea, and the North went ahead with its second nuclear test in protest. The Council held another meeting and adopted additional sanctions. The North, which had been continuing its provocative act, caused the sinking of the Cheonan naval ship in March 2010. In November of that year, it shelled the island of Yeonpyeongdo, reminding the South Korean people that the two Koreas are technically still at war.
In April 2012, North Korea attempted to launch another satellite. It failed, but North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, did not give up and pushed ahead again in December of that year. That successfully entered Earth's orbit for the first time in North Korea's history. The vicious cycle repeated. Four years later, in February 2016, North Korea's satellite launch also went through almost the same path.
North Korea’s launch on Wednesday was its sixth attempt as a satellite and the first as a reconnaissance one. Even though it failed, this time it has some qualitative differences from the previous launches in terms of strategic purpose, rocket technology and China's diplomatic approach.
North Korea has launched satellites for many reasons. For example, securing technology to develop rockets for long-range missile launches can be pointed out. This time, the satellite seems to strengthen further the so-called new Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula. The new Cold War structure can be seen as an opportunity for Kim to make North Korea's nuclear weapons a fait accompli in the face of China and Russia's confrontation with the US. It would have been calculated that the launch would lead to fierce opposition from the US, South Korea and Japan, further strengthening cooperation between the three countries, and that might in turn have a mirror effect on cooperation between North Korea, China and Russia. So, the North could expect that the three-on-three confrontation might help it escape its long-time isolation in terms of economic sanctions.
China's response will be the most significant point among the differences. In the past, China participated in economic sanctions against North Korea with almost no exceptions for North Korea's satellite launch, long-range missile launch, and nuclear tests. However, since last year, China has opposed additional sanctions against North Korea's long-range missile launches. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has already mentioned a reason for this situation, and stressed that a political settlement is required. It is not difficult to foresee that China would disagree on a sanction against the North on the satellite.
North Korea's missile technology has also changed. North Korea no longer needs to develop long-range missile technology under the pretext of a satellite. Whenever North Korea attempted to launch a satellite, the international community punished it out of concern that the North would acquire long-range ballistic missile technology. However, North Korea successfully test-fired a long-range ballistic missile in November 2017, and the color of the game has been changed.
The response should be different as the major characteristics of North Korea's satellite launch have changed. Calling for additional economic sanctions against North Korea and criticizing China will not work at all, as China’s position has changed. The military pressure on China can be an option. Strengthening the US military power around the Korean Peninsula and strengthening military cooperation between the three countries, South Korea, the US and Japan, were methods frequently used in the past. However, it is unlikely to change China's attitude as China is focusing on the strategic competition with the United States already. This scenario featuring China’s noncooperation might lead to a victory for Kim’s "Byungjin (Parallel Development) Policy of Economy and Nuclear Weapons."
Communication and dialogue with China are essential for South Korea and the United States to respond effectively. China has insisted on the need for negotiations to stop joint military drills between South Korea and the US, refrain from visits of strategic assets, and establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, saying it should also provide measures to address North Korea's security concerns.
As North Korea has already secured long-range ballistic missile technology, banning the launch of satellites could be subject to review from scratch. Suppose North Korea promises a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests, and China cooperates in negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and establish a peace regime on the Peninsula. In that case, it is also necessary to consider a large-scale negotiation involving the South, the North, the US and China. I hope to see a new and smart response which reflects conditions and environments that are different qualitatively and quantitatively from the past.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.