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NORTH KOREA: Pyongyang’s ‘Show of Strength’ Provokes Big Powers

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Apr 6 2009 (IPS) - The timing of North Korea’s rocket launch on Sunday, designed as a show of strength, was as provocative as the launch itself. It occurred on the day U.S. President Barack Obama made a speech calling for an end to nuclear arms and committed himself to reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Beset with rumours of a succession struggle and waning control, the North Korean regime launched what it says is a communications satellite but what the United States and its allies describe as a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska.

The launch flouted U.N. resolutions banning North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile activity. It cast the Stalinist state in even starker isolation just days after the conclusion of the London summit of the Group of 20, where the international community made a strong pledge to fight the global crisis together.

Describing the launch as a "provocation", Obama said North Korea "has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint, and further isolated itself from the community of nations". He was speaking from Prague in the Czech Republic, where he outlined his long-term goal for nuclear disarmament.

"This provocation underscores the need for action – not just this afternoon at the … Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons," he said.

"Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something… now is the time for a strong international response," Obama added. "North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons."

But Obama’s call to action was almost immediately undercut by appeals for restraint and caution from China and Russia. Both countries fear that international sanctions could lead to the collapse of the stagnant North Korean economy and further destabilise the volatile North.

The health of North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, and his grip on power has been of lingering international concern ever since he was reported to have suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telephoned his counterparts in the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea to discuss the launch, according to a statement issued by the foreign ministry here. "All sides ought to look at the big picture… (and) avoid taking actions which may exacerbate the situation further," Yang was quoted as saying. China "upholds using talks to resolve this issue," he added.

During an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council held in the late hours Sunday, which failed to result in agreement on a common response to the launch, China’s envoy echoed these statements by urging caution. "I think we are now in a very sensitive moment," Ambassador Zhang Yesui told reporters after the council meeting. "Regarding the reaction of the Security Council, our position is that it has to be cautious and proportionate."

As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with a power to veto proposed resolutions, China’s stance is significant. But China’s views matter greatly also because Beijing is Pyongyang’s closest ally and economic partner. China supplies approximately 90 percent of the North’s oil and accounts for more than half of its foreign trade.

Analysts believe that China has helped keep the regime of Kim Jong-Il afloat for years because it fears that a collapse could destabilise the country, unleashing a flood of refugees and lead to the creation of a stronger unified Korea on its borders.

Although Beijing publicly maintains the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, it has not squashed expectations that North Korean society would develop along Chinese lines as its leadership gradually implements market reforms and allows incremental exposure to the outside world.

But Pyongyang’s abrupt 2002 admission to a U.S. envoy that it had been secretly pursuing a uranium-weapons programme in violation of its existing agreements, spurred Beijing into taking more action. China initiated six-nation negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear programme, one that included the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Under a landmark deal reached in 2007, the North agreed to dismantle its nuclear programmes in exchange for energy aid and diplomatic concessions. But the talks broke down in December amid frictions over the verification of the disarmament process. Chinese analysts have blamed pressure from the United States, South Korea and Japan for driving the North over the line with the launch.

"The factor of pressure in creating the current tense situation on the Korean peninsula is undeniable," Lou Yang, a research fellow with the State Information Centre wrote in the China Business Journal. "With no evidence to prove it, the United States and its allies stubbornly insisted the North was going to test a ballistic missile. What is more, they said that even a communications satellite would be a violation of the U.N. resolution as long as Pyongyang was using a long-range rocket to reach orbit."

Shi Yinhong, researcher with the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, said that Japan and the United States could use this week’s rocket launch as an excuse for their military expansion in the region.

"They play up the ‘North Korea threat’ to pave the way for building a ballistic defence system," Shi said during a web chat after the launch Sunday.

China’s official response to the launch has been relatively mild in comparison to its condemnation in 2006, when Beijing accused Pyongyang of "flagrantly" conducting a nuclear test in defiance of universal international opinion.

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