Despite tough talk, the West will have limited options if North Korea goes ahead with its planned long-range rocket launch this month.
The United States is likely to take the matter to the UN Security Council, analysts say, and could tighten its already tough sanctions. Such efforts would struggle without support from China, which can be expected to resist any threat to the stability of its neighbour.
There also is deep uncertainty about where turning the screw further on North Korea would lead. After the Security Council condemned its previous long-range rocket launch in 2009, North Korea responded by kicking out UN nuclear inspectors, pulling out of aid-for-disarmament negotiations and conducting its second detonation of an atomic device.
“At minimum, there has to be a statement of criticism,” said Gordon Flake, a Washington-based Korea analyst. “The question is how North Korea will react, and history suggests it won’t react well.”
The stakes are higher than they were in 2009, as the potential for tensions on the Korean peninsula to escalate into conflict is greater now than it was then. South Korea’s government came under heavy domestic criticism for what was seen as a weak response to a North Korean artillery barrage that killed four people on a front-line island in 2010. Earlier that year, North Korea was believed to have torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. The North denied responsibility.
North Korea says the missile launch is intended to place an observation satellite into orbit. But others view the launch as a cover for a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that one day could carry a nuclear warhead.
Crucially for Washington, if the three-stage Unha-3 rocket works, it could demonstrate that North Korea has parts of the US in its missile range.
The launch would violate both a UN ban and an accord the impoverished country reached with with the US on 29 February, under which it would freeze nuclear activities and observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid.
The launch plans, disclosed a little more than two weeks after the accord was announced, undermined what little faith the West and Seoul had in North Korea’s sincerity about talks on its nuclear programme. They also all but squashed the fleeting prospect that the nation would change after the death in December of its long-time ruler, Kim Jong-il.
US president Barack Obama, facing a campaign for re-election and accused by Republicans of naïvete for reaching out to North Korea, pointedly visited the heavily militarised Korean border last week during a trip to South Korea for a nuclear summit. North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, previously had made the visit from the northern side. Obama implored the North’s leaders “to have the courage to pursue peace”, but warned that unless they changed their ways, the country would face “more isolation”. But neither he nor other officials have said what steps will be taken should the missile be launched.
Fears about the launch have spread farther afield. The Philippines has expressed concern about falling debris. Indonesia says the launch would undermine regional stability. Russia and China, which have long-standing ties with the North, also have urged Pyongyang to rethink its plans. Vietnam has urged North Korea to comply with Security Council resolutions. The breadth of criticism reflects not just recognition that the launch would violate UN resolutions, but that this rocket, unlike previous launches, will head not eastward over Japan and into the Pacific, but toward busier waters off South-east Asia.
China is being urged to nudge its neighbour into line, but the prospects appear slim. North Korea has promoted the launch as a sign of the nation’s strength as it marks the centennial of the birth of its founder, Kim Il-sung. Recent satellite imagery showed preparations under way at the launch site.