North Korea Rocket Leads U.S. to Push Missile Shield, Sanctions

  • Thaad missile defense system viewed with suspicion by China
  • Isolated nation claims success in putting satellite into space

North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket prompted the U.S. and South Korea to reiterate calls for harsher sanctions and announce talks on the possible deployment of a missile defense system, moves that are bound to rile China.

Within hours of North Korea announcing it had successfully fired its “Kwangmyongsong” (shining star) satellite into orbit on Sunday morning, the U.S. and South Korea said they would consider deployment of the Thaad ballistic missile defense system on South Korean soil. The U.S. and South Korea will push for action against North Korea at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council set for Sunday at 11 a.m.

The launch, which came a month after North Korea defied the international community by holding its fourth nuclear test, underscores the limited impact that U.S. pressure and a decade of UN sanctions have had on curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The Obama administration’s push for tougher punishment from the UN has run into resistance from China, which also sees the Lockheed Martin Corp.-manufactured Thaad system as a threat that could be used against its own missiles.

China is “deeply concerned” about the talks on Thaad, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement. “Moving ahead with the deployment of anti-missile systems in the region will further raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It will not help maintain regional peace and stability, nor will it lead to a proper settlement of the current situation. We urge relevant parties to deal with this issue with care and caution.”

In a joint statement, the U.S. and South Korea said that if Thaad were deployed, it would only be used to target North Korea. It may be hard to convince the Chinese that Thaad isn’t a threat, said John Nilsson-Wright, head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House.

‘Vulnerability’

“Opening the door to such deployments will worry Beijing that this is a pretext for further increasing missile defense capabilities in order to increase the vulnerability of China’s own missile capabilities,” he said.

While China joined in condemning the rocket launch, a commentary in the official Xinhua news agency said that ratcheting up sanctions was not the answer. Unlike Iran, whose economy was hobbled by sanctions against its oil exports, North Korea produces little of value to the outside world.

The U.S. has said that China, which provides an economic lifeline to its former Cold War through food and energy supplies, is key to bringing North Korea to heel. Still, Beijing has repeatedly rejected tough sanctions like banning oil exports for fear of destabilizing the North and triggering a flood of refugees across the countries’ shared border.

Policy ‘Failure’

The U.S. would work with security council members to develop “significant measures” to hold North Korea accountable, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Now is the time to do so in a firm and united way, with measures that make clear the determination of the international community to ‎address the pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities by” North Korea.

Kerry has called China’s North Korea policy a failure and traveled to Beijing last month where he tried in vain to convince China to support harsher sanctions. Still, the rocket launch also illustrates the limits of China’s leverage with Kim. The regime has ignored China’s repeated calls to stop developing nuclear arms, and North Korea announced the rocket-launch plan in early February while China’s nuclear envoy was in Pyongyang for talks on North Korea’s weapons program.

North Korea insists its rocket firings are for peaceful scientific purposes, while the U.S. views them as tests of ballistic missile technology that could eventually be used to carry nuclear weapons to U.S. shores. The U.S. has said that it won’t accept North Korea as a nuclear power, while Pyongyang insists that its nuclear program is the best deterrent against a U.S. invasion.

‘Fascinating Vapor’

"The fascinating vapor of Juche satellite trailing in the clear and blue sky in spring of February" is a gift from the nation’s scientists to Kim, the party and the people, the official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday in announcing the launch.

North Korea is developing a missile called Taepodong-2 with a range of 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles), according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. That would leave the West Coast of the U.S. within the missile’s range. Questions remain as to whether North Korea has the technical capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and to ensure its missiles could endure the stress of space flight and hit intended targets precisely.

“Every time North Korea launches a space rocket -- even unsuccessful attempts -- it advances its knowledge and capabilities,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “But it is important to understand a large, stationary, liquid-fueled rocket does not make a very good weapon, because it provides ample warning it is being readied.”

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