North Korea’s improving missile capability cast a shadow on political campaigns in two of its neighbors, heightening focus on a potential threat that may prompt Japan to stiffen its defense posture and provide a bump to South Korea’s conservative candidate.
North Korea yesterday deployed a communications satellite from a rocket eight months after a previous attempt failed, spurning global calls for the Marxist nation to desist. South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin warned the North also is making “considerable” progress toward another nuclear test.
The move from Kim Jong Un’s regime poses one of the first security tests for prospective leaders in Japan and South Korea, which hold elections next week, and for China’s new rulers. While South Korean opposition candidate Moon Jae In has championed closer ties with the North, ruling-party nominee Park Geun Hye has made more muted calls. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s likely next prime minister, has pledged to boost military spending.
“This can only push the Japanese debate towards a defensive stance, and a normalization of Japanese defense policy” away from its pacifist constitution, said Rory Medcalf, director of the international security program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “It may help Japan and South Korea to find common ground on security issues.”
The Unha-3 rocket launch came against a backdrop of rising tensions this year in East Asia, including island disputes between Japan and South Korea, both U.S. allies that host American bases and troops. China’s assertiveness over maritime claims disrupted trade with Japan and prompted diplomatic sparring with Vietnam and the Philippines, another U.S. ally that is seeking to bolster its military ties.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea’s move, calling it a “clear violation” of UN prohibitions. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the 15-member council -- which has the power to authorize sanctions -- will discuss a set of measures to punish the nation.
Stocks in South Korea and Japan saw little impact from the test, which had been flagged since Dec. 1. South Korea’s benchmark Kospi Index rose 0.5 percent as of 9:16 a.m. today, after a 0.6 percent gain yesterday, and Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average was up 1.2 percent. The won was 0.4 percent higher, at 1,071.18 per dollar, after a 0.2 percent rise yesterday.
Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Jong Il a year ago, oversees a military-first state with 1.7 million of his 24 million people in the armed services. North Korea has twice detonated an atomic bomb, and the new leader has shown no readiness to respond to calls from the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to return to six-party talks aimed at getting the regime to abandon its nuclear program.
Kim Jong Un has worked to secure his hereditary position since the death of his father, who initiated North Korea’s nuclear program. Acquiring a ballistic missile capability would bolster his political standing, according to Kim Yeon Su, a professor at the state-run Korea National Defense University in Seoul.
“This year politically has great symbolic value,” Kim said, noting that 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather to the current leader. “The launch could help Kim Jong Un’s efforts to legitimize his position if it had been preceded by economic improvements. But the economy is still struggling and this could cause serious internal divisions about the future of the regime among those in favor of and against opening up.”
The failed rocket launch in April cost the regime a U.S. deal to provide food assistance to the country, where two-thirds of the population suffer from chronic malnutrition. North Korea has invested between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion on missile and nuclear weapons development, according to South Korean government estimates, an amount that could buy enough corn to feed its entire population for three years.
China, North Korea’s biggest ally and trading partner, said it regrets the launch, adding to criticism from the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Australia. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing that China regrets North Korea’s action and called for calm in the region. The Chinese government is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, with Communist Party head Xi Jinping set to succeed Hu Jintao as president in March.
“The Chinese leadership is probably going to look at this along the lines of ‘just don’t start a war,’” Dean Cheng, a research fellow who studies China at The Heritage Foundation, told reporters. “‘Don’t push the South Koreans or the Americans or the Japanese over the edge.’”
The Obama administration denounced the rocket test, with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor calling it “a highly provocative act” that jeopardizes regional security.
The U.S. detected the launch at 9:49 a.m. Korea time, after which the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea and the second dropped into the Philippine Sea, according to a statement from the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The satellite carried communication and Earth-observation equipment, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.
Japan’s government issued an announcement five minutes after the rocket took off, in contrast with the misfire in April, when it drew criticism for remaining silent until about 40 minutes later.
A successful test highlights Kim’s goal of threatening the American mainland with a missile and may strengthen hardliners in South Korea and Japan, according to Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The launch will add some wind to what is already set to be an LDP landslide in Japan, particularly since Abe’s strengths are his credentials on national security,” said Green, a former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, referring to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. “It is hard to see how this launch could possibly help the progressives and Moon Jae in in South Korea.”
Park led Moon ahead of the Dec. 19 election by 2.2 percentage points -- equivalent to the margin of error -- in a survey of 2,000 respondents this week conducted by Seoul-based Realmeter and JTBC, a cable-TV affiliate of JoongAng Ilbo. The LDP may gain as many as 285 seats in the Dec. 16 race for the 480-seat lower house of parliament, while Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan may win as few as 68 according to an Asahi newspaper poll published Dec. 6 that gave no margin of error.
Kim’s regime is trying to interfere in South Korea’s presidential election by creating “a mood of fear,” Park told voters yesterday while campaigning. Outgoing President Lee Myung Bak and the ruling New Frontier Party must be held responsible for suspending inter-Korean dialog and creating tensions that led to the launch, Moon said on the campaign trail.
Whoever wins the elections will be dealing with a North Korean leader whose nuclear ambitions may be emboldened, Korea National Defense University’s Kim said.
“Kim Jong Un has declared that he will go his way instead of warming up to possibilities of negotiation, and this will contribute to instability on the Korean peninsula,” he said.