Seldom have I seen an action that has angered so many nations and yet left them appearing helpless as North Korean’s recent missile launch.
For the United States, the launch means North Korea could one day launch a nuclear weapon that could strike the West Coast. I realize that North Korea is still in the testing stage and there are questions about its progress in developing a nuclear warhead. North Korea still must overcome major problems in areas such as miniaturization. This is why a number of experts expect North Korea to follow up with a series of nuclear weapons tests.
Regardless of how long it takes the North Koreans to field a missile with a warhead that can hit the United States, we must assume they already have one. This is a national security matter. That means more work on air defense weapons, regardless of the state of the economy.
North Korea’s launch also affects our policy toward Iran. Iran has helped North Korea develop this missile; Pyongyang has been dealing extensively with Iran. The North’s Unha-3 missile bears a striking resemblance to the missile Iran launched some weeks ago. The two countries have been sharing nuclear information for some time.
The real problem has been with the Chinese. Much of the material exchanged between Iran and the North has been shipped through China. China told the North not to launch the missile because of tensions on the Korean peninsula and U.N. resolutions, and urged North Korea to “act prudently.” Now, however, China dares not take a hard line against North Korea because doing so might lead to regime collapse and chaos on the Korean peninsula. The result could be either a unified Korea supported by the United States or a regional conflict. Over the years, this chronic situation has given North Korea significant leverage over Beijing.
The Russians have given up on North Korea. A Russian friend whose associate worked on the North Korean desk in the Russian Foreign Ministry considered North Koreans both crazy and dangerous.
Japan was equally upset at North Korea’s launch. After all, the missile flew over Okinawa. While the Japanese tracked it, they made no effort to bring it down. Japanese has long been concerned about the unpredictable nature of the government in Pyongyang. The history of the two countries has been anything but cordial. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula until the end of World War II, and Japanese rule was brutal. After World War II, there were instances in which North Koreans kidnaped Japanese women and took them back to the North. Not surprisingly, Japan deemed the launch “completely unacceptable.”
The missile launch gave the North Koreans bragging rights over South Korea. The South has failed in two recent attempts to launch such a missile. Technical problems wrecked plans for a third attempt this year.
The North claims the international outrage is much ado about nothing, saying all of its work is for peaceful purposes. The North’s news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying, “The right to use outer space for peaceful purposes is universally recognized by international law, and it reflects the unanimous will of the international community.”
Now comes the frustrating part. There is a call in Congress for action, a demand “to do something.” The initial White House response was to call the launch a “highly provocative act” that threatens regional security. It then noted that the United States is “fully committed to the security of our allies in the region.”
The problem is that the United States has tried just about every approach possible. The Clinton administration, tried to reach out to North Korea. President Bush took a much harder line, and now the ball is in Obama’s court.
North Korea is now the most sanctioned country in the world. Another U.N. condemnation will do little good. Sometimes, foreign policy problems are too tough to solve. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much the United States can do, except build up is air defense system.
If there is a winner in this episode, it is Kim Jong-un. It will help the young leader consolidate power at home and ensure that he will be taken more seriously internationally.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.