Allies downplay North Korea threat
April 2, 2009
SEOUL — As the U.S. and South Korean militaries prepare for a possible rocket launch by North Korea within days, experts say the move is a cry for attention that is unlikely to escalate into an all-out war.
But it is still a "very serious situation" and could be an early sign of an increasingly hostile attitude by North Korea toward the rest of the world, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
"They see it as a great opportunity to get treated as a nation with nuclear powers," he said.
Daniel Pinkston, an international security expert, said Tuesday that North Korea is believed to have several nuclear warheads which could be mounted on a missile.
But Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert for the International Crisis Group think tank that provides detailed analysis about North Korea’s nuclear program, stressed it is unclear if the communist nation has mastered the technology necessary to miniaturize the warheads and put them on Rodong missiles, which have a range of 620 to 930 miles. The North is believed to have five to eight warheads, he said.
North Korea has said it plans to launch a satellite between Saturday and Wednesday, but U.S. officials say the communist nation is likely testing ballistic missile technology that could reach the States.
Kim, however, said he’s 90 percent certain that North Korea plans to launch a satellite and not a ballistic missile. But both use the same technology, and North Korea hopes to use a satellite launch to show the world that it could launch a nuclear weapon, Kim said.
By doing so, he said, the North hopes to gain the upper hand in negotiations with the U.S., normalize diplomatic ties with the U.S., and get economic aid.
"It is all a desperate need for them to help sustain and secure the North Korean system," he said.
By launching a satellite instead of a missile, North Korea will lessen the criticism it could get from the international community, he said. It could also capitalize on its missile-launching technology and increase its sales of nuclear weapons to other countries, he said.
The U.S. military deployed two missile-intercepting destroyers, the USS McCain and the USS Chafee, from Busan on Monday in anticipation of the launch, although an anonymous U.S. military spokesman wouldn’t state their destination, according to The Associated Press.
A U.S. Forces Korea spokesman said he couldn’t comment on that report, or any other military preparations for the launch, including whether U.S. troops would be on a heightened alert or whether warnings would be issued to U.S. civilians on the peninsula.
Japan and South Korea have also deployed warships to the waters near North Korea. A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday he could not comment on military activities surrounding the rocket launch.
Tokyo has said it is only protecting its territory and has no intention of trying to shoot down the rocket, but North Korea said it is not convinced and accused Japan of inciting militarism at home to justify developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.
If Japan tries to intercept the satellite, the North’s army "will consider this as the start of Japan’s war of re-invasion more than six decades after the Second World War and mercilessly destroy all its interceptor means and citadels with the most powerful military means," the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday.
The U.S. and South Korea are both downplaying the event, said Michael Breen, author of "The Koreans" and president of a public relations firm in Seoul.
"This is the first time that I can recall when both countries have acted in concert like this, in a way to say to the rest of the world that this is not important," he said.
Nobody is certain why North Korea plans to launch the rocket, he said, but one possible theory is that Kim Jong Il is trying to reassert his authority within the country following a stroke last year.
"To do that, they need to upset the outside world and create a bit of tension," he said.
Kim Tae-woo, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said North Korea is trying to launch a satellite not because it needs one, but to send a strong message to the U.S.: Pay attention to North Korean issues and recognize North Korea as a more powerful player before the next round of talks begin over its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea is trying to press South Korea into restoring the "Sunshine Policy," the previous administration’s policy that emphasized cooperation with the North. It also wants to create division among South Koreans, Kim said.
"Dividing South Korea’s public opinion might be the North’s best strategy for dealing with an economically stronger country," he said.
He said that after the rocket launch, relations between North Korea and the U.S. will follow a pattern: The U.S. will suggest direct dialogue with North Korea, but the communist nation will refuse to abandon its nuclear program. The relationship between the two countries will become increasingly confrontational.
"North Korea already knows this sequence," he said.
Among residents in Seoul, about an hour’s drive from the heavily guarded border, attitudes toward the upcoming rocket launch ranged from apathy to mild concern.
"I’m sick and tired of their constant threatening to launch something," said Hwang Byung-chul, a 45-year-old electrician. "Who cares? Trying to stay afloat and make a livelihood for my family is more important to me."
Jung Ki-bok, 50 and also an electrician, said most South Koreans are more worried about the country’s ailing economy than a North Korean missile, which he believes is a way to blackmail other countries into giving it what it wants.
"They put on lots of shows," said Jung, whose father was born in North Korea. "They will shoot something at least once, sooner or later. But it is not even news to us."
Cho A-ra, a 26-year-old office worker, said older generations may be following news about the rocket launch, but she isn’t.
"It is not part of my life," she said. "What North Korea is doing is just bluffing and putting on a false show. I’m not interested in this."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.