x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

North Korea's launch plan adds to anxiety

Announced launch of a satellite comes during 'a very volatile time' with both Korean militaries already on combat readiness.

A South Korean officer looks at a map provided by North Korea showing areas in danger from a rocket carrying a "communications satellite" that Pyongyang says will be launched in early April.
A South Korean officer looks at a map provided by North Korea showing areas in danger from a rocket carrying a "communications satellite" that Pyongyang says will be launched in early April.

BEIJING // As North Korea informed the International Maritime Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation that it has scheduled a "satellite" launch for April, analysts say any incident between the two Koreas could, at a time of heightened tensions, lead to war. The North said it would launch a "communications satellite" named Kwangmyongsong-2 between April 4 and 8, the London-based IMO said in a notification to member states on Thursday, citing an e-mail sent by Pyongyang and subsequently verifying it with the North Korean Embassy in London.

The announcement follows weeks of reports that North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range missile from a base on its east coast, which it tries to portray as a peaceful space programme. "This is a very volatile time," said Dong Yong-sueng, a Seoul-based security analyst. Analysts point out the rocket plan is timed to celebrate the rubber-stamp parliament's reappointment of Kim Jong-il as its supreme leader on April 5. In addition, by specifying the launch hour as sometime between 2am to 7am and officially registering the event with the international authorities, observers say Pyongyang aims to gain legitimacy for the launch and stave off international criticism.

However, the US President Barack Obama, the United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and the European Parliament all expressed concerns over the launch. Japan was particularly disconcerted. In 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 missile that flew over the island nation before landing in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government warned that a North Korean rocket launch - even one carrying a satellite - would lead to UN Security Council sanctions against the country.

Japanese and US military officials have suggested they are weighing whether to shoot down the rocket, which North Korea said would constitute an act of war. In the last week Pyongyang has accused the United States of using annual military exercises with South Korea to prepare for a pre-emptive attack. The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills that began last Monday have been longer and on a larger scale than in previous years. The US also introduced a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to test its ability to quickly deploy forces should North Korea invade.

Pyongyang in return warned that it cannot guarantee the safety of southern aeroplanes flying near to its airspace. In 1987 it shot down a South Korean passenger plane. All this comes as the two Koreas' militaries remain on combat readiness since Pyongyang on Jan 30 announced it was scrapping all peace accords with the South. Neighbouring countries took note of the move, fearing a naval clash. The possibility of a such a battle in the West Sea is real given that the annual crab harvest season is approaching. The blue crabs, which are concentrated along the disputed sea border known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), are an important source of income for fishermen from both Koreas. Exchanges of gunfire in 1999 and 2002 left casualties on both sides.

The situation between the countries deteriorated further on Friday when North Korea sealed off the inter-Korean border for the second time in a week, making hundreds of South Koreans working at a joint industrial park in the North virtual hostages. As of yesterday, North Korea was turning a deaf ear to the South's call for the reopening of the border. Given the precarious circumstances, observers fear that any incident could trigger a war.

South Korea has taken a tougher line toward the North under the government of Lee Myung-bak, departing from the engagement policy of the previous two administrations. "Having been the subject of blackmailing for years by the North, there is now a growing sense of willingness in the South Korean leadership to butt heads with North Korea if provoked," said a government source in Seoul. "It's like, 'We've had it enough. Let's fight to determine who's the boss'."

South Korea's conservative newspapers that support Mr Lee's hardline policy have been churning out articles highlighting the US-backed South's superior military capabilities. Meanwhile, Japanese and US military officials have said they are considering whether to shoot down the North Korean rocket. But according to the Chinese military expert Wei Guoan, it may not be a simple task. "Japan actually doesn't have the ability to intercept the missile. For the US to do so is also very difficult because all of the previous test interceptions by the US military were conducted under the condition in which the time, place and trajectory were known. As for the North Korean rocket, the US doesn't have a number of critical pieces of information to be successful," he wrote in Friday's Global Times.

Failure to intercept the missile would not only be an embarrassment to the US, but could also invite retaliation from the North, which has repeatedly warned it will strike back. The problem will not end there. China has a mutual defence treaty with North Korea under which China is obliged to come to the defence of the North in the event it becomes engaged in a war. Cui Zhiying, the director of the Korean Peninsula Research Office at Tongji University in Shanghai, said that ultimately, a war was unlikely.

"It's because nobody is stupid. Anyone with a brain will not go in that direction," he said. slee@thenational.ae