JAPAN: Tensions Rise Over North Korean Rocket

  • by Catherine Makino (tokyo)
  • Saturday, March 28, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

North Korea is expected to launch the rocket - which is alleged to be a long-range, ballistic missile in disguise -any day between Apr. 4 and 8.

On Friday, Japan’s Defence Minister, Yasukazu Hamada, directed the SDF to shoot down any ballistic missile fired at Japan or satellite-carrying rockets that may fall on Japanese territory. It is the first time the SDF have been given such orders.

'We will do our best to handle any flying object from North Korea,'' Hamada said.

While the isolated communist dictatorship claims the purpose of the launch is to put a communications satellite in space, experts have said that the rocket appears to be an improved version of the Taepodong-2, a ballistic missile developed by North Korea.

The North Koreans have reacted by saying that any attempt to shoot it down would be considered as an act of war.

Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation, does not think that Japan will actually shoot down the rocket if it merely orbits over Japan as that might unduly escalate tensions.

However, he believes North Korean missiles are a serious security threat to Japan and should be condemned by the international community, perhaps even with new U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions.

Japan has already announced plans to bring the matter before the UNSC, if the launch goes through.

There is also anxiety that if an attempt by Japan to shoot down the missile fails, it will make the country more vulnerable to any kind of North Korean nuclear threat.

Hoping to bring calm to rising tension, chief cabinet secretary Takeo Kawamura said at a news conference on Friday that it was unlikely under normal circumstances the missile would fall on Japanese territory.

'Please continue your normal daily lives and work even during the hours North Korea has notified us it will conduct the launch. When the launch takes place, the government will let you know,'' Kawamura said.

Although the exact motives behind North Korea's decision to launch the missile test are impossible to discern, it is obvious that the regime is trying to grab attention at a time when the international community is focused on the global financial crisis, according to Konishi.

'As always, the regime hopes that it can drive a wedge between nations, particularly those involved in the six party talks, to maximise its leverage in the ongoing crisis,' Konishi says.

The purpose of the talks, among China, South Korea, North Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan, is to find a peaceful solution to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

'Another motive could be to show a display of strength at a time when there is speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may have been weakened by a stroke,’’ Konishi said.

However, Konishi said he was not sure if the launch would be a net gain for North Korea. 'I don't think it will give Pyongyang more leverage in the already stalled six party talks, and it is only likely to harden international opinion against the regime.'

Bradley Martin, Tokyo-based North Korea analyst and author of ‘Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty,’ says the country has succeeded in increasing tension in the area by simply threatening to launch the missile.

'It's trying to show the Obama administration its potential for causing trouble is so great that further concessions from Washington are in order,' Martin says.

'If it succeeds in putting a satellite into orbit, that will trump South Korea which plans its own satellite launch. It will also serve as an advertisement to its missile customers that the hardware quality is good.'

Pyongyang, said Martin, may have caught the Obama administration’s attention, but it is hard to a see a way out of the deadlock. ‘’Agreements are made, deadlines missed, trust dissipates... we have seen this happen too many times to have much hope.’’

Efforts by regional powers to dissuade North Korea from going ahead with the launch have displayed solidarity, but experts doubt it will convince North Korea to abandon its plans.

Russia, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan have urged North Korea to cease from its rocket launch.

According to Jeffrey Kingston of the Temple University in Tokyo, getting the nuclear genie back into the bottle will not be easy for the very good reason that North Korea gains from keeping this programme going . ‘’Can the rest of the world convince the regime that it has more to gain by giving it up?'

Pyongyang warned on Thursday that, should the international community impose sanctions on it for the planned missile launch, it would retaliate by restarting a nuclear plant that it had begun taking apart under a deal signed among regional powers in September 2005.

'All the processes for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula ... will be brought back to what used to be before their start and necessary strong measures will be taken,’’ the official KCNA news agency said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said on Wednesday, while on a visit to Mexico, that the launch could wreck talks among the six parties to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

Prof. Hideshi Takesada, executive director of Japan’s National Institute of Defence Studies, told IPS that he believed that North Korea is ‘’unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons programme until the unification of Korea takes place’’.

Many Korean-Japanese, living in this country say they are targets of increased discrimination whenever there is growing tension between Japan and North Korea. They are the largest minority group living in Japan who came to the country during the colonial period.

There are more than 900,000 Koreans currently living here, including those who have become naturalised Japanese citizens.

Ae-cha Kim, a Korean-Japanese librarian, says she does not understand why every country except North Korea has the right to develop a satellite for its own prosperity. 'But when North Korea tries to do the same thing, it is subject to discrimination.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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