NORTH KOREA: From Confrontation to Communication

By Beal, Tim | New Zealand International Review, November 1998 | Go to article overview

NORTH KOREA: From Confrontation to Communication


Beal, Tim, New Zealand International Review


On 31 August a multi-stage rocket called Taepo Dong I was launched from Musudan-Ri, Hwadae County, North Hamgyong Province, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The first stage appears to have fallen in what the Japanese call the Sea of Japan and the Koreans, north and south, call the East Sea. The rest of the rocket traversed Japan and the second, and perhaps final stage, landed in the Pacific. The furore over the launch echoed around the world and illustrated, once again, how fragile the situation is in North-east Asia and how dangerous is the lack of communication between North Korea and its neighbours, principally those to the south and west.

The launch came at a particularly bad time in geo-political terms. There was political disarray, for rather different but equally potent, reasons in Washington and Moscow. The Obuchi government in Tokyo was new and was seen, even perhaps by itself, as a caretaker administration. Beijing was preoccupied by the floods, which had caused President Jiang Zemin to cancel overseas visits, and by the agonising over whether it would devalue the renminbi. President Kim Dae-Jung in the Republic of Korea was still wrestling with the economic crisis. The global economy was on the brink of a recession and governments throughout the world were uncertain what to do. Australia had an election campaign and even New Zealand had a little local difficulty.

The response to the launch was interesting and usually predictable. Whether it was predictable to Pyongyang is perhaps uncertain; the North Koreans probably find Tokyo or Washington as incomprehensible in many ways as others find them bizarre. The press, or at least that part of it monitored by the US State Department and posted on the US Information Agency website,(1) had a field day. There was `swift condemnation from media outlets in the region and beyond', which advanced a number of reasons for the `provocative' launch. Some thought it was a `show of force' in advance of the 50th anniversary of the DPRK on 9 September and the expected accession of Kim Jong-Il as paramount leader. Others thought in more commercial terms, saying it had a dual purpose: to serve as a `giant advertisement' for the country's missile technology -- which one writer called North Korea's primary `export commodity' to Third World countries -- and to serve as a bargaining chip to win concessions from the United States. The Italian La Repubblica, for example, argued:

   The North Korean government has stated very clearly that it will continue
   to produce and sell missiles up until the time the U.S. lifts its economic
   sanctions.... Therefore, arms production ... has become [North Korea's]
   most important diplomatic ... tool to try and obtain concessions from the
   U.S. and the other Asian countries without making any significant
   concessions [of its own].

Only defence

The only defence of the DPRK, in this selection at least, came from Egypt's Al Ahram which pointed out

   But there is exaggeration in the reactions [to it] because the Far East and
   the whole world are full of missiles. This international situation gives
   the right to any country to develop its missiles to protect its security.
   For these objections to have credibility, the objecting countries should
   declare a binding program to destroy their own missiles under an
   international program of comprehensive disarmament, to be applied on all
   countries equally. The world will not accept being divided into countries
   that have the right to produce weapons of mass destruction and threaten the
   rest, while other countries are denied this right.

The Japanese government was annoyed, angry, and embarrassed. It quite rightly complained that the rocket had overshot Japan without prior consultation. However, what probably irked the Japanese most was the fact that they were dependent on the Americans for the information, as it turns out quite limited, on what had happened. …

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