Go to content


Opinion pieces on business & economic issues

DONG Yong-Sueng

North Korea's Missile Firings

DONG Yong-Sueng

July 12, 2006

email Print

Several days after North Korea test-fired its missiles on July 5, the international community has yet to comprehend fully why it did it and what it would do in the future. In order to better understand future behaviors of the North, we need to analyze developments behind the missile launches.

North Korea has long wanted direct talks with the United States, demanding that it be treated as a legitimate nation for negotiation on equal footing. To underscore that point, the North timed its firing to coincide with the launching of the US space shuttle Discovery on the US Independence Day. Its tough line is also reflected in the statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry that its test-firing of missiles was part of its sovereign rights.

The North has argued that the joint statement at the fourth round of the six-party talks is still valid. It has strongly criticized the US for freezing North Korean assets worth US$24 million in the account of Macau-based Banco Delta Asia. Despite strong belief of the US that its financial sanctions on North Korea has been effective, North Korea considers the US sanctions as undeniable evidence that the US does not take six-party talks or joint announcement seriously enough.

Against that background, North Korea may have test-fired missiles for the following two purposes:

First, it wants to stop the US from putting pressure on Pyongyang and driving it into the corner. Analysts called the launches an effort by the North to break the deadlock and force the US to take new initiatives. Responding to the expectations of Pyongyang, the US is working hard to resolve the tension by suggesting an informal six-party talk and a possibility of direct talks between the US and Pyongyang on the sidelines of informal six-party talks.

Second, Pyongyang intends to show the world that it will not bow to pressure from US sanctions. It appears unafraid of tougher sanctions since it is already accustomed to sanctions imposed by the US . Since the US froze North Korean assets in the Macau account, North Korean officials have kept saying that financial sanctions on Pyongyang would not significantly affect their economy since most trading companies of the North make large-amount deposits (US$100,000 to 1 million) in their personal accounts, not corporate accounts.

Pyongyang was able to carry out its provocative missile tests partly thanks to its strong confidence in its closest ally China. In an effort to strengthen its position in the international community, Pyongyang wants Seoul to show up on the same side. That's why it is attempting to weaken links between South Korea and other countries. It believes it has failed to reach an agreement with its southern counterpart over the disputes of Northern Limit Line because of the US influence on South Korea. Also, Pyongyang wants to cool down the relations between South Korea and Japan over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents.

For example, at a recent reunion of separated families, Pyongyang allowed Kim Yong Nam, a South Korean abductee who married Japanese abductee Megumi Yokota who later reportedly committed suicide, to meet his mother and sister from the South. The North also stood on the side of South Korea on Seoul's claim over the islets of Dokdo (called Takeshima by Japan), the focus of territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan .

Now, Seoul stands at a crossroads over the question of sanctions on Pyongyang: whether or not it should join the US and Japan and participate in imposing international sanctions on Pyongyang or defend Pyongyang for the sake of the stability on the Peninsula. Pyongyang forces its southern counterpart to take the latter policy, which can be a big help for the isolated regime in surviving the coming three years with the Bush Administration. It even went so far as to threaten to set Seoul ablaze if the Grand National Party, the South's largest opposition party, won the next election.

Against this backdrop, the North is unlikely to participate in the informal six-party talks unless the US lifts sanctions. If, and this is a big if, Pyongyang agrees to hold the informal six-party talks, it would make such a decision on the conditions that the US would lift financial sanctions through bilateral talks. Therefore, informal talks are not expected to lead to next rounds of formal six-party talks. If the United Nations Security Council decides to impose economic sanctions, Pyongyang might test-fire more short range or intermediate range missiles targeting Japan which has urged the council to impose sanctions on North Korea .

But Pyongyang is expected to keep taking a friendly stance toward Seoul. It believes that Seoul has no alternative but to support its northern brethren. That's why it attempts to strengthen its ties with the Roh Moo-Hyun Administration before the hawkish Grand National Party takes power.

he US and Japan will not give in to the North's demands to drop financial sanctions and negotiate bilaterally. The North, in turn, attempts to show it would not yield to external pressure. Such a provocative move by the Stalinist regime would finally result in a united front of the international community which would agree to put sanctions on Pyongyang. If such a scenario turns into reality, South Korea cannot help but to participate in imposing sanctions on North Korea .

The writer formerly headed the Economic Security Team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. He is now vice president of Trinity Capital Development Partners, Inc. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the publication that carries them.
Go to list