The Korean Missile Gap

The missiles that North Korea fired over and into the Sea of Japan on July 4 were aimed at the political unity of the international community, according to various observers in the South Korean online media.

The question is whether the missiles will drive a wedge between the United States and Japan on the one hand, and China and South Korea on the other.

The differences between the countries' responses are already evident.

Japan barred North Korean ships from its ports and North Korean travelers from its airports. Two small street demonstrations against North Korea took place in Japan within 24 hours of the North Korean tests. Japan's Asahi Shimbum saw the missile tests as "a reckless and dangerous new level" of brinksmanship and supported U.S. efforts to call North Korea to account.

Spokesmen in Beijing and Seoul sounded milder. A Chinese government spokesman said Beijing was "seriously concerned."

In South Korea, a government spokesman yesterday urged the country's allies to respond to the missile tests in a "cool headed manner," according to Yonhap news agency. That sounds much like the country's recent line on Pyongyang: Last month, South Korea downplayed warnings that the North might test a missile (See my June 20 post, "South Korea: What Me Worry?").

The Joong Ang Daily in Seoul says North Korea may still wind up the "big winner," saying the consensus of South Korean analysts is "that the flood of threats from other countries to impose sanctions are hollow; the country [North Korea] has been essentially cut off from the rest of the world for decades."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il "gambled that Beijing and Seoul will not change their stances toward the North" as a result of the missile test, "and it's likely that his gamble will pay off," said Kim Tae-hyo, a political scientist. Kim doubted that China will agree to any sanctions the United States or Japan might propose.

"There is not much that the United States and Japan can do diplomatically or militarily," said another analyst interviewed by the Joong Ang Daily.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told the Korea Times that he saw the missile tests as a "naked attempt" to get direct talks with Washington. Pyonyang's message, he said, is "they can do whatever they want if Washington continues evading direct talks." The Korea Times declared, "Launch sends blunt message to America."

Some South Korean observers are saying it's time for Seoul to change its line on the North.

The government of President Roh Myun-Moon "has no choice but to fundamentally revaluate its North Korean policy," according to the editors of the Korea Times. Seoul should "consult closely with the U.S. and Japan for relevant countermeasures, including the level of sanctions to be slapped on the North for the launchings."

Chosun Ilbo daily said that if the government "refuses to wake up from its daydream of playing the mediator between Washington and Pyongyang while continuing to provide aid to the North, the missile crisis will escalate and the country's security be jeopardized further. That way lies a dissolution of the Korea-U.S alliance and Korea's status as an international orphan."

Is that message sinking in? Maybe not. Lee Jong-seok, the cabinet minister in charge of reunification efforts, hinted that the South Korean economic ties to the North would not suffer. He said the government would continue supporting an inter-Korean industrial complex in the city of Kaesgong on the grounds the project was initiated by a private company.

Peaceful engagement may remain the preferred approach in the South. "South Korea has invested a lot in its -- slow-motion reunification -- efforts with the North, though more in the currency of hope and national pride than in concrete financial assistance," John Feffer, a left-leaning U.S. security analyst, wrote in OhMyNews, a South Korean "citizen journalism" site.

"Seoul's reaction to the launch preparations has been cautious to the point of denial," he writes, while "South Korean civil movement continue to stress the value of diplomacy and sheer idiocy of military confrontation."

Feffer thinks the missile test has failed to split Japan and the United States.

"Pyongyang has long profited from driving wedges between its adversaries," Feffer wrote. "This potential missile launch has appeared to do the opposite. In Japan, support for missile defense and the North Korea-bashing prime minister hopeful Shinzo Abe has spiked."

As the United States and Japan seek U.N. Security Council action against North Korea, South Korea faces a basic question. Which side are you on?

By Jefferson Morley |  July 6, 2006; 8:42 AM ET  | Category:  Asia
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Why can't North Korea have ballistic missiles? Because it's a Communist dictatorship? What about China, then? Why are China and Russia allowed to have nuclear warheads but not North Korea? Why is Japan allowed to purchase state-of-the-art military equipment from America but North Korea not allowed to develop its own military technology with its own money? Has North Korea really invaded any country other than South Korea 50 years ago?

What is North Korea trying to get out of firing missiles? As far as I can see, there are 3 possibilities.

1) Because they are insane.
2) Because it's good for their ego, especially since they have nothing else to be proud of.
3) Because they are trying to get the attention of the U.S. and bring the U.S. back to the bargaining table.

Many people believe Kim Jong Il is insane, but people who actually know him state you otherwise if you read the literature. It is highly likely that he has his own rationale for the seemingly irrational behavior. Of course, he may well be miscalculating but he is probably not a lunatic who needs to be on psychotropic drugs. You can dismiss possibility 1).

Possibility 2) likely contributes but it's possibility 3) that is most convincing based on their past behavior. Kim Jong Il is simply trying to manipulate the U.S. back into the kinds of negotiations they had last year. If you remember, there was a "landmark" agreement last year in which the U.S. agreed to provide aid if North Korea stopped developing its nuclear technology. That agreement evaporated when North Koreans were found to be making counterfeit dollars and were instead subjected to sanctions by the U.S. A very similar situation occurred after the missile crisis in late1990s, when the U.S. agreed to build nuclear reactors and North Koreans agreed to forego nuclear weapons development. This agreement collapsed because the U.S. did not follow up on its promise. The U.S. probably never intended to do so.

I think the most logical way to deal with the North Koreans is, believe it or not, appeasement. Let them enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and gloat over their "victory over the Yankees". The North Koreans do not pose a real threat to the U.S., and pose only a marginal threat to South Korea and Japan, which is more psychological than real. North Korea does not have the military power to stand up against South Korea or Japan, when there is continuing U.S. presence in these two countries. North Korean generals surely know that, too.

The U.S. should selectively ignore or engage North Korea, depending on the issue. It should not be confrontational. Using military or economic pressure will have no effect on the North Koreans, just as economic sanctions have not done anything for the Castro regime in Cuba.

There is no reason for South Korea to "take sides". It should abandon its practice of unconditional aids to the North, but continue to work to ease the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

Posted by: John G. | July 6, 2006 01:46 PM

Alliances are useful when the use of force or pressure against a country is anticipated. However, if force is not going to be used, bilateral negotiations, without the threat of force, have a better chance of success. Force means one side seeks to dominate the other side. Negotiations, without threats, means the interests of both parties are considered. I believe the latter method would be more useful in dealing with North Korea.
I also believe that an agreement is necessary before things get out of control. I am not particulary concerned about China, South Korea, and the U.S., but, I am concerned about the effects on Japan. Since World War II, Japan has been one of the most peaceful countries in the World. With Missiles flying in the direction of Japan, it will be forced to look to it's national defense. After their experiences in World War II with Japan, I do not think it is in the interest of China or North Korea to encourage Militarism in Japan. Negotiations as opposed to force between all the countries of the Far East is the way to go. Force begets force, negotiations based on mutual interest begets peace.

Posted by: P. J. Casey | July 6, 2006 02:06 PM

Do you really think the koreans would have done this without china's permission. Notice that it happenned within days off the US Congress approving India's nuclear deal. This is a message from China to US

Posted by: tintin | July 6, 2006 02:24 PM

Is our "star wars" technology up and running, or was it a figment of the Reagan administration's imagination? We have enough on our plate. Stay out of this one until more is known. We don't need another weapons of mass destruction scenario.

Posted by: Wayne P. | July 6, 2006 05:34 PM

There already was a split between the United States and Japan on the one hand, and China and South Korea on the other. The interesting question is not whether the reactions to the launch reflected that split, but whether the split was wider or narrower than before. An expression of "serious concern" from China sounds like the launch has brought them closer to the US/Japan position, at least in tone.

Posted by: Tom T. | July 6, 2006 05:53 PM

John, like most Americans who are immersed in our national delusion that all our violence is righteous violence, you seem to have forgotten possibility (4), which is:

Having seen how easily the world's lone superpower will abuse its position and disregard international opinion by invading and occupying a sovereign country that never attacked it and had no plans to, and having listened to itself being repeatedly labelled a locus of "evil" by the current madman in power there, NK is taking steps to at least make the anticipated invasion a messy job for the knee-jerk aggressors across the sea.

Wipe the July 4th confetti from your eyes for a moment and consider just what we look like from without.

Posted by: B2O | July 6, 2006 06:14 PM

Breaking news said that the North Korean Taepo Dong 2 missile was targeted towards the state of Hawaii. If so, it should be considered an act of war.

Bill Clinton gave North Korea over 4 billion dollars to sign an agreement so that North Korea wouldn't have an atomic bomb. So what did they do? They built one before the ink was even dry. Thank you liberals for not confronting this serious threat and leaving the mess for us to clean up.

Posted by: James Ziolkowski | July 6, 2006 10:01 PM

A wake up call to all good and decent Americans
So it is apparent that we are headed for another cold war, this time with China. The nuclear arms race will begin all over again, because the neo-cons (cons as in con artist and/or convicts) will flog us with flags, burning ones preferable, until we are whipped into such a frenzy that we are willing to approve any amount of unchecked spending, covert and clandestine activity that they think they can get away with. It's a money laundering scheme, extraordinaire.
Is North Korea, a threat to the United States? Snow job! Maybe that's why the White House hired Tony Snow. The last time I read anything about the disparity between North and South Korea, North Korea was not even a threat to South Korea. But give the Americans a parade with some dead and disabled Vets and they'll buy anything.
When neo-cons proudly display their support our troops bumper sticker, they are thinking about the killing they are making off of the crutch and prosthetic limb market.
I am curious as to whether the Chinese are in on it and whether this is just a business mans agreement between a few gentleman for the purpose of driving up stock and bond prices.
The military-industrial complex, it's not so complex, it's pretty simple if you use your mind to think about it. Complex indicates multi-faceted, I'm sure the people who are profiteering off fear and aggression would prefer as few facets as possible.
Sending inbred hillbillies to Iraq with guns and authority is inevitably going to lead to a few rapes, murders and other war crimes, a PR nightmare, but a cold war, that is money in the bank, baby!
Oh, but wait, did I forget that notorious day on 9/11 when 3,000 Americans died? 27,000 children die every day of starvation and that seems pretty easy to overlook in the press.
But freedom isn't free, and what I would like, is to be free of is neo-conservative, hate-mongering war dogs who would burn a baby's village, eat the dead and pick their teeth with the bones. Garcon! Check please. Would you put that on the tab of the American budget deficit, please?
Wake up America! I believe the time for good and decent human beings to unite has arrived! I believe there are more good and decent human beings than there are evil ones. And it's Ok if you got fooled by the rhetoric, but it's not OK if you don't open your eyes and avoid the mistakes of the past. Abraham Lincoln said you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Posted by: John McCullough | July 7, 2006 12:45 AM

Two short guys with wraparound sunglasses bogartin' the spotlight, waggin' fingers, poppin' rockets, chests all out, look-at-me look-at-me. Can't we sort this stuff out in a more appropriate venue, say, the WWF, Donald McHenry in the zebra shirt straight from the board of Coke?

Posted by: Reynolds | July 7, 2006 11:27 AM


John, like most Americans who are immersed in our national delusion that all our violence is righteous violence, you seem to have forgotten possibility (4), which is:

Having seen how easily the world's lone superpower will abuse its position and disregard international opinion by invading and occupying a sovereign country that never attacked it and had no plans to, and having listened to itself being repeatedly labelled a locus of "evil" by the current madman in power there, NK is taking steps to at least make the anticipated invasion a messy job for the knee-jerk aggressors across the sea.

Wipe the July 4th confetti from your eyes for a moment and consider just what we look like from without.

So rather then do anything usefull that might deter and american attack, (Strengthen their relationship with China, work on resolving thier differances with South Korea, start building thier industrial base, ect) They decide to test fire some offensive weapons garenteed to piss everyone around them off.

Posted by: Duck | July 7, 2006 10:00 PM

Is NK so unpredictable as many see? Or is it played into US's hand?

A conspiracy theory similar to the one for the Iraq war claiming the war was for the dominance of the US currency:

No body seems to pay much attention to Japan, the 2nd largest economy in the world while wielding minimal influence on international stage, even at the 6-party talks. The nation has long sought its influence in international affairs. Before, it tried using economical means that was proved ineffective. Realizing that it's never going to become a major plyer internationally if it can't rid the limitation of military power imposed upon it and that only the US can help it, it's been working on many fronts hoping to improve its power: seeking a seat in UN security council, participating in peace-maintaining duties in Afganistan and Iraq, and sharing the financial burden of the wars. And it seizes the chance to become the closest ally of the US, complying with almost everything the US asks it to do. Though some are to its own interest, for example, anything that would reduce or remove the limit on it military or arms power.

Japan is now the US treasure. But to make it an even more helpful ally, US needs to equip it with more military power. What's a better way than having a provocative NK as a threat for Japan to enforcing its "defense" ability without causing objection from SK or China?

That says why the Bush administration suddenly announced unrelated banking sanctions against NK when the 6-party talk was going relatively hopeful. That made NK leave the talk and was since isolated. Then the news broke out that NK was about to test missles.....The confrontation was never softened from either side.

Right after the missle tests, Japan reacted in a very aggresive way, threatening to bring NK a UN saction, meanwhile quickly announced to enter the missle defense system a year ealier than previously scheduled.
---> the major outcome of this event.

Posted by: b.a.d. wu | July 10, 2006 03:47 PM

i like your writing. this is the way we learn many thing.

Posted by: salu | July 11, 2006 10:11 AM

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