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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
North Korea: An insoluble problem?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il: always in confrontation

The test firing by North Korea of its new Taepodong-2 missile shows that it remains predictably unpredictable.

As diplomats from the region and the United States scurried to react, the Security Council was called into session and sanctions were imposed or threatened, the conclusion has to be that no solution to this problem is in sight.

There have been apparent agreements and breakthroughs before but, in the end, the North Koreans always managed to take the defiant course.

The nature of the regime almost requires that it remains in confrontation with the outside world.

In 2003, it chose to launch a missile hours before the inauguration of South Korea's new president.

This one coincided with US Independence Day.

The confrontation however has a dangerous edge.

North Korea has left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has declared that it has nuclear weapons. Now it is developing a long-range missile, which in theory could reach Alaska.

Failure of new missile

The only thing to give some comfort to North Korea's nervous neighbours and the United States is that the Taepodong-2 failed after 40 seconds while still in its first stage.

Five other missiles were also launched in the sequence, but these appear to have been mostly well-proven Scuds. Then, in another gesture, a further missile was fired the next day.

According to Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Scuds were fired in order for the North to cover itself in case of a failure by the Taepodong-2.

"They were there simply to cause a bang," he told the BBC News website.

"The North had several objectives in this launch. One was to test the design of the new missile to show themselves and potential customers that it would work. That has obviously failed. Now they will have to go back to the drawing board.

The people will no longer support aid to North Korea in case of a missile launch
South Korean adviser Song Min-Soon

"The others were for Kim Jong-il to demonstrate to his people and everyone else that he is not going to be pushed around. The North wants to gain attention and show that it cannot be bullied. It feels under pressure especially after the United States started imposing financial controls to crack down on its money laundering and money making operations using Far East banks."

Pressure points

The defiance by North Korea does not mean that its neighbours and others have no means of applying real pressure to it. Some at least of that pressure will now be mobilised but it is doubtful whether it will really change very much.

In the Security Council, Japan, the United States and Britain drew up a draft resolution condeming North Korea, calling on it to return to talks and on other countries to deny it goods and technology that might help its nuclear development.

Japan has cancelled ferries and charter flights, pinpricks really, and is likely to stop remittances being sent to North Korea from expatriate workers in Japan. That would hurt more. So would a reduction in Japanese trade.

The Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has suffered a setback in that he persuaded North Korea to agree a declaration in 2002 in which it agreed to continue a moratorium on missile launching "in and after 2003". That was another example of how the North says one thing and does another.

South Korea has spoken of cutting aid, of which rice is a key element.

"The people will no longer support aid to North Korea in case of a missile launch," said South Korea's senior security adviser Song Min-Soon, who is in Washington for talks with the Bush administration.

Washington is sending an envoy to the region but it is unlikely to agree to direct talks as the North has demanded, preferring to stay with the six party framework that has carried negotiations, currently suspended, until now.

Much will depend on China, which must have been annoyed at the launch, though publicly it has simply talked of its "regret". China supports North Korea with food and energy so has a hold over it.

However China is still unwilling to do much about the North. It is worried about a collapse there, precipitating a flood of refugees into China.

Beyond that, it presumably prefers to have a known factor on its doorstep rather than risk a united, democratic and prosperous Korea which might develop from the demise of the North.

Kissinger doctrine

Possibly the only realistic approach, given that an attack on North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities could provoke a war from this highly militaristic state, is to follow the advice of the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

He has written recently that a return to the principles of the Cold War might be appropriate when dealing with states regarded as a threat.

The principles, he said, were to contain the activities of such states abroad and work or wait for their eventual collapse at home.


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