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Pyongyang Ups the Ante

Dec 2, 2017
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With the launch of its TD-2 missile only two weeks away, North Korea has upped the rhetorical ante, warning that international “punishment” for the test will mean the end of talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

From Reuters, via the Ottawa Citizen:

“It is perversity to say satellite launch technology cannot be distinguished from a long-range missile technology and so must be dealt with by the UN Security Council, which is like saying a kitchen knife is no different from a bayonet,” state media quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

The unidentified spokesman said “such an act of hostility” would be in defiance of the Sept. 19 joint statement, a disarmament-for-aid deal the impoverished North reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

“If the Sept. 19 joint statement is nullified, there will be neither the foundation nor the meaning for the existence of the six-party talks,” the spokesman said.

While North Korea’s vow is anything but unexpected, it comes at a particularly critical time. Through its preceeding statements and actions, the DPRK has made it clear: the April TD-2 launch will go ahead as scheduled, suggesting that private appeals from Washington, Seoul, Tokyo (and elsewhere) have fallen on deaf ears.

With today’s declaration, the diplomatic calculus becomes even more difficult. Pyongyang understands that the U.S. has invested heavily in the Six Party process, making it a cornerstone of dealing with North Korea and the nuclear issue. If Kim Jong-il pulls out of the talks, the diplomatic effort will return to square one. Meanwhile, the North Korean nuclear program will (presumably) “break out” of its current limitations, ramping up weapons production and triggering a possible arms race in Northeast Asia.

That sends shivers through the State Department crowd, which has largely ignored North Korea’s record of non-compliance on nuclear accords. Assessing (correctly) that diplomacy is Option One for the Obama Administration, Pyongyang believes today’s threat will persuade the U.S. to let the missile launch proceed, in order to preserve the Six Party process.

But what do we gain by sustaining those talks? More empty promises by Kim Jong-il’s emissaries; hints at compliance, and demands for greater concessions–and assistance–from the U.S. and its partners. At the same time, Washington and its allies are supposed to ignore gross violations by the DPRK, including the export of nuclear technology to Syria.

For good measure, Pyongyang is also warning that attempts to shoot down the TD-2 would be an “act of war.” However, the North Koreans have not revealed what sort of military response the intercept would bring.

With North Korean forces currently wrapping-up the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), military readiness is at peak levels. But there’s little reason to believe that Pyongyang would retaliate with a full-scale invasion of South Korea, or even a limited incursion across the DMZ.

At the other end of the military spectrum, Pyongyang might initiate a naval engagement along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime extension of the DMZ. Other possible options include the intercept of U.S reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, using fighter aircraft or long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Japan’s Koydo news agency reports that diplomats from the U.S., South Korea and Japan will meet in Washington on Friday to discuss the missile launch and (presumably) potential response measures. That begs a couple of obvious questions: (A) Why weren’t these talks held sooner, say the week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to the Far East and B) Why hasn’t the U.S. coordinated–and announced–some sort of strategy for dealing with the missile test?

The answers are painfully obvious. Apparently, North Korea hasn’t made it onto Mr. Obama’s teleprompter (yet), or the administration invested in private overtures that simply didn’t pan out. Now, with the TD-2 sitting on the launch pad, Washington is facing the looming reality of a North Korean missile test, and scrambling to deal with it.

Mr. Obama’s inability to deal with his first major international crisis has been evident for some time. When Tokyo recently announced its plans to deploy missile defense ships to the Sea of Japan–and shoot down the TD-2 if necessary–it underscored Washington’s complete lack of leadership on the issue. Remember, the Japanese Constitution renounces war and by law, the nation’s armed services are referred to as self-defense forces.

Yet, Japan is contemplating its most aggressive military move since 1941, to deal with a nuclear-capable North Korean missile that will fly through its airspace. While Tokyo would prefer a unified approach (with the U.S. taking the lead), the lack of action from Washington has forced Japan to consider radical action.

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