Three Days and Counting: No Security Council Action on North Korean Missile Launch
April 8, 2009 - 4:25 AMhree days after President Obama declared that "rules must be binding, violations must be punished," the U.N. Security Council remains divided over a response to North Korea's missile launch.
Japan, the country most directly threatened by North Korea’s ballistic missiles, is moving towards new unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday advised patience, saying during a joint appearance with her New Zealand counterpart that negotiations were continuing.
“Seventy-two hours is a long time in a news cycle,” Clinton said. “It’s not a long time in relations between nations or in the affairs of the Security Council.”
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Clinton had spoken by phone to the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers. Beijing and Moscow have both urged “restraint” in responding to Sunday’s launch of what the U.S. military identified as a Taepondong-2 ballistic missile.
After North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, the council took five days to agree on a legally-binding resolution demanding an end to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests. The U.S. and Japan say the latest launch was a violation of that resolution. China and Russia disagree, citing North Korea’s claim that the launch sent a satellite into orbit and did thus not constitute a missile test.
“Launching a satellite is different in nature from firing a missile or a nuclear test,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing. “This issue also involves the right of all countries to peaceful use of outer space.”
Scientists and military experts say there is no evidence to back up the satellite claim, and the U.S. military said whatever payload the rocket was carrying landed in the Pacific Ocean together with the projectile’s remaining stages, after traveling more than 1,800 miles.
Japan, whose airspace was compromised by the launch, is not in the mood to take chances.
“If the Security Council fails to swiftly adopt robust measures against North Korea, the reclusive country will continue to use its nuclear arms and missiles to provoke and threaten others,” Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial Tuesday.
“If North Korea succeeds in building a smaller nuclear warhead, Japan will be staring down the barrel of a terrifying threat.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said the credibility and authority of the council would be undermined if it failed to respond to the violation.
But with a Chinese and Russian veto threat hovering over negotiations in New York and obstructing attempts to draft a condemnatory or punitive resolution, Tokyo once again is looking to act alone.
(Although the second-biggest funder of the U.N., Japan’s long running U.S.-backed bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council has been frustrated by regional rival China. Japan is currently a temporary council member.)
Existing Japanese sanctions imposed after earlier missile tests, including a ban on imports and port calls by North Korean ships, are due to expire next Monday. Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said a decision on new sanctions could come at a cabinet meeting on Friday. Officials say a total ban on exports to North Korea is under consideration.
Japanese lawmakers on Tuesday passed a measure condemning the North Korean action and calling on the government to “stiffen” sanctions against the Stalinist state.
Japan has consistently been the most uncompromising of the five countries – the others are the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia – involved in the “six-party” talks aimed at negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Japan’s stance is attributed to its proximity to the threat, North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric directed at Japan, as well as an unresolved bilateral dispute over North Korea’s past abduction of Japanese citizens.
A unified U.S.-Japanese approach to the crisis splintered in 2007-8 as Tokyo differed with Washington’s decisions to leave missile development out of the six-party negotiations and, last year, to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Pyongyang has sought to exploit differences between the two allies, and demanded more than once that Japan be excluded.
The six-party talks have been stalled since December, and China and Russia this week stressed the need to restart them.
“The core element in this situation is the six-party talks,” said Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, warning against “an emotional knee-jerk reaction” to the missile launch.
Ahead of the launch, North Korea warned that the six-party process would “rupture” completely if the issue is taken up by the Security Council. On Tuesday, a North Korean diplomat at the U.N. warned, without elaborating, that “strong steps” would be taken in the event of council action.
Several commentators have said the North Korean action constitutes a major “international crisis” of the type Vice President Joe Biden predicted would confront Obama in his first six months in office.
“The U.S. and indeed the world now wait to see whether President Obama’s strong rhetoric will be backed up by firm resolve to confront North Korea’s defiance of the international community,” said Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Bruce Klingner, adding that the ramifications of the response would be felt far beyond the Korean peninsula.
Speaking shortly before the launch, the administration’s new special representative for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said although there should be consequences if it went ahead, he hoped that once “the dust settles,” the six-party talks would resume.
Bosworth also defended the idea of bilateral talks with the North Koreans, arguing that they strengthened rather than weakened the six-party negotiations, and saying that bilateral talks conducted during the latter years of the Bush administration had “proved to be quite useful.”
Noting that the North Korean leadership was always eager for high-level bilateral talks, Sun-won Park, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, recommended that the U.S. cut off such contacts, saying this would be “the greatest sanction against North Korea.”
The U.S. and North Korea held bilateral talks over missiles during the Clinton administration, but they stalled in mid-2000, after the U.S. rejected a North Korean demand for $1 billion for each year the country suspends missile development, deployment and sales abroad.