North Korea is once again testing the reaction of the international community as it apparently prepares to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. Just like in 1998, when North Korea sent a first rocket flying over Japan, into the Pacific Ocean, the news has sent shockwaves across the region, and all the way to Washington.
The United States and Japan have warned Pyongyang there could be serious consequences if it goes ahead with a second missile firing. This rocket, according to intelligence reports, could have a range of more than 6,000 kilometers -- enough to reach Alaska.
"We would regard [a missile launch] as an abrogation of obligations that North Korea undertook in the moratorium that they signed onto in 1999, that they reiterated in 2002, that is clearly a part of the framework agreement that was signed in September of this past year by the six parties," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on June 19.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also expressed concern. "I hope that the North Korean leader will hear and listen to what the whole world is saying: We are all worried. He has to be very careful not to create an even more complicated situation within the [Korean] Peninsula," he said.North Korea Within Its Rights?
North Korea, for its part, says it has every right to fire a missile at any time it pleases. One leading Western expert says that like it or not, on this point, the North Koreans are right.
North Korea announced a voluntary moratorium on missile tests in 1999, with the understanding that direct negotiations on the issue would follow with the United States. They never did. And although Pyongyang extended its launch moratorium, no legally binding treaty was ever signed.
"Missiles are not illegal. North Korea is not a member of the missile-technology control regime, therefore it pretty much can do as it pleases," explains Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University.
"It's just that if you're going to test a missile, you normally as a matter of courtesy should tell people who are in the way," Foster-Carter adds. "And in particular, the moratorium was entirely voluntary. It didn't even have the status of a treaty or a nonbinding agreement or anything between two states."Why Now?
So why has North Korea chosen this time to once again provoke? Perhaps Pyongyang was tired of seeing Iran grab all the media attention with its own nuclear gambit. And perhaps it was inspired by the concessions Tehran appears to be winning in response to its hard-line stance.
One thing is clear, says Foster-Carter. North Korea wants direct talks with the United States, outside of the six-nation negotiations involving Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, that have so far led nowhere. And it may have calculated that now is the time to push for that.
"Above all, the North Koreans would like direct talks with the U.S., which the Bush administration has been reluctant to give them," Foster-Carter notes. "It's all stuck. The six-party party process is stuck. You might not think they mind that because of course they're never keen to come to those talks. And meanwhile, we assume they're pushing ahead with their missile programs and whatever else they've got. But they are cross with the U.S. about the financial sanctions that are going on at the moment. So they're not happy about that."Upper Volta With Missiles
North Korea has always been a master at exploiting outsiders' lack of real intelligence about the state of its military. Should we fear North Korea and its purported nuclear program or not? Foster-Carter says the United States, among others, is still playing a guessing game. And just like with the former Soviet Union, the dilapidated state of North Korea's civilian economy may not be a good guide.
"Just like the former Soviet Union used to be rather unkindly described as Upper Volta with rockets, which was making the point that you can have an economy in general that's not doing terribly well and that's certainly not global leading-edge but because it puts enough resources into the military it can be very good," the analyst says.
"You can make a similar argument for North Korea, which is in many ways a failed state, its people are still starving, yet they have the resources for this. On the other hand, there are what you might call 'technological optimists' who say look, nothing works in North Korea, so the missiles aren't going to work either," Foster-Carter adds.Test May Be Counterproductive
North Korea may seem to hold some aces, having once again caught the world by surprise. But ultimately, this latest threat from Pyongyang may backfire.
North Korea's 1998 missile test pushed Japan toward a more hard-line policy, closer to the United States. Experts say that if Pyongyang launches a second missile, it could drive South Korea -- which has until now followed a policy of relative détente with the North, to harden its stance too.
China, Pyongyang's leading partner, which has been investing recently into North Korea, could also react negatively.
Foster-Carter says this latest crisis may have been provoked by internal political tensions within the North Korean regime that are as difficult to analyze for outsiders as the country's military.
"Chinese money is coming in as well as Chinese political and diplomatic support. It doesn't seem very sensible for North Korea to do anything that would jeopardize that. We shouldn't neglect that they actually have internal politics in Pyongyang about all this. They keep that very well hidden too," he notes.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, "in a sense, is straddling two things. He's trying to portray himself as a sort of technocrat who wants to open the economy and modernize. But also he has to tell the military, whose support he relies on, that he's their No. 1 defender and will keep the country strong and up to the bullying United States. It's kind of squaring the circle and I think we're seeing the contradictions of that policy right now," Foster-Carter concludes.