Obama could face domestic political challenges over Pyongyang in election year
North Korea took a step further into international isolation on Friday morning after it blasted off a long-range rocket that apparently exploded shortly after lift-off.
With the U.S. and its allies including South Korea seeking to refer it to the U.N. Security Council, Pyongyang is expected to face deteriorating ties with Washington and Seoul, and toughened international sanctions, analysts said.
Calling the launch a “provocative action” that threatens regional security, the U.S. said it has lost confidence in Pyongyang, and indicated it would make good on its threat to suspend the planned provision of “nutritional assistance” to the impoverished state.
Hours after the launch, the foreign ministers of the world’s eight leading counties condemned the North in a joint statement. They said they were “ready to consider, with others, taking measures” in response to the North’s violation of U.N. resolutions.
The U.S. is now seeking to handle the rocket launch within the U.N. Security Council. Along with South Korea and its allies, it is expected to seek a statement or resolution to deliver a stern message to the North, and tighten existing sanctions.
What matters most is whether China, a veto-wielding power at the UNSC, will cooperate in the move against Pyongyang. Beijing said it had tried to stop the rocket launch, but fell short of explicitly criticizing the North.
“The reason why anti-Pyongyang sanctions have not been effective is China has offered food and energy to the North. Pyongyang relies on China, which takes advantage of the North to maintain its international leadership,” said Yu Suk-ryul, professor emeritus at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
|President Lee Myung-bak presides over an emergency meeting of security and foreign affairs-related ministers at Cheong Wa Dae on Friday. Among the participants were Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik (left) and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (right). (Cheong Wa Dae)|
“But this time, China may feel greater pressure from the international community calling it part of the Group of two, and could join sanctions against Pyongyang. This could apply great pressure to the North.”
In the process of the U.S. formulating its measures to deal with Pyongyang, President Barack Obama could consider domestic political situations. Washington’s handling of the launch could become a political target when he seeks a second term in the presidential vote in November, observers said.
“Looking back on the past history of its missile and nuclear tests, there is a possibility that the North could conduct a third nuclear test,” said Yu.
“Then, (Obama’s political foes) could say that the Washington-Pyongyang relations have failed, or that Washington failed to properly deal with North Korean issues.”
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for trying to “appease the (North Korean) regime with a food aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived.”
The two countries reached the deal in February to temporarily halt uranium enrichment at the North’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and put a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance.
Observers said that the deal was reached due in part to domestic political needs. New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un needed economic and diplomatic assistance from the U.S. to consolidate his power, while the U.S. sought better ties with Pyongyang.
Despite its repeated warnings of “no rewards for bad behavior,” the U.S. could refrain from taking strong measures that could aggravate its ties with Pyongyang, experts said.
“North Korea’s long-range rocket affects U.S. (security), not South Korea, while its mid-range rocket threatens the security of Japan. As the launch failed, the U.S. might have felt relieved,” a security expert said, declining to be named.
“Given that, the U.S. could continue to have dialogue with the North and seek to engage in the process of denuclearizing the North.”
Experts said the rocket the North used for the satellite launch is the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.
It is presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 kilometers, long enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still short of reaching the U.S. mainland. The two test launches of the missile failed in 2006 and in 2009.
The North fired off the rocket to mark the centennial birth day of its founding father Kim Il-sung that falls on Sunday. Analysts said that despite international criticism, the new leadership wanted to show off its military and scientific capability, and increase its bargaining power in negotiations with the U.S. through the launch.
After the North tested the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile in July 2006, the North conducted the first nuclear test in October that year. After testing the missile again in April 2009, it carried out another nuclear test in May that year.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com
)Chronology of N.K. missile program
● Aug. 31, 1998: North Korea fires its first ballistic missile, the Unha-1 rocket, also known as the Taepodong-1 missile, from the launch site of Musudan-ri in North Hamgyeong Province.
● July 4, 2006: North Korea fires the more advanced Taepodong-2 missile at the launch site of Musudan-ri.
● April 5, 2009: North Korea launches the Unha-2 rocket at Musudan-ri with the attendance of leader Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un.
● April 13, 2012: North Korea fires off a long-range rocket, the Unha-3 rocket, from the Dongchang-ri launch site in North Pyeongan Province.