North Korea's neighbors apprehensive, angry over upcoming rocket launch
A DigitalGlobe satellite image obtained March 30, 2012 of North Korea's launch site at Tongch’ang-ri.
April 6th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

North Korea's neighbors apprehensive, angry over upcoming rocket launch

By Jamie Crawford

As an agreement for the United States to resume food aid to North Korea lies in tatters over the North's upcoming launch of a long-range rocket, there is a palpable sense of apprehension and anger over the launch in the reclusive regime's own backyard.

From South Korea to Japan and China, the Philippines, Russia and Australia, a varying chorus of anger and disappointment is being directed toward the Stalinist state in advance of the launch, expected later this month. The question now is what happens after the rocket leaves the launching pad.

"North Korea's neighbors have only limited means at their disposal to try to prevent it from launching this rocket and only limited means to respond," David Straub, a Korea specialist at Stanford University, told CNN.

For some Korea watchers, the most unpredictable variable is how South Korea will react if debris from the rocket lands in its territory.

In 2010, North Korea was blamed for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in which 46 sailors died, and the shelling of a South Korean island that killed four people. But the South Korean government withheld a military response under heavy international pressure.

This time could be different.

"There's probably going to be tremendous political pressure to respond" if parts of the rocket land on South Korean territory, said Victor Cha with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Many analysts who follow South Korea say the government will likely call for the United Nations Security Council to impose additional sanctions on North Korea, and will coordinate an official condemnation of the launch with the United States, Japan and other members of the international community.

For its part, Japan has said it will shoot down any part of the rocket that enters its territory, something Japan has never done.

At a news conference in Tokyo last week, Naoki Tanaka, the Japanese defense minister, said he issued an official order to the Japanese military to prepare its missile defense shield in anticipation of the launch. There are plans to deploy ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors around Tokyo, and the islands of Okinawa, Ishigaki and Miyako.

Three Aegis-equipped destroyers carrying sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors will also be deployed to the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. The defense ministry says the military will deploy helicopter rescue units to be ready to respond in the event rocket debris hits Japanese territory.

Analysts say the current trajectory of the multi-staged rocket's path is north to south with the main body eventually landing in the Pacific Ocean near the Philippines. President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines has publicly condemned the launch as a "needless provocation" that could increase tensions in Southeast Asia.

The Philippine government has announced a no-fly zone around the area where debris from the rocket may land. The government will also deploy disaster response teams from the Philippine military to certain parts of the country as a contingency.

North Korea has few friends in Southeast Asia, and concern over the upcoming launch was one of the leading themes of a regional summit earlier this week in Cambodia.

For China - North Korea's closest ally and largest provider of aid - the current chain of events follow a well-known script of provocative acts from the secretive state for which China makes an attempt at some sort of damage control while dealing with frustrations of its own.

"Despite all the leverage they have, (China) can't really control what the North Koreans do," Cha said. "At the same time, they are not willing to completely cut them off because they don't want a collapse of North Korea, which then leads to chaos and potentially unification (with South Korea) directly on their border."

Cha and others say China is likely to block any resolutions against the launch in the Security Council, and instead call for a return to international negotiations over the North's military programs.

And then there is Russia, another occasional ally of North Korea in the international arena that is thought to also harbor some sense of dissatisfaction with a launch that North Korea says is meant to put a satellite in orbit to mark the centenary of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung.

Russian opposition to U.S. missile defense systems in Europe is well known, and the Russian government is sure to not want any additional justifications for the United States to pursue missile defense programs.

North Korea shows no signs of calling off the launch, and for analysts like Straub at Stanford, what follows the launch has a familiar ring.

"The North Korean launch will force the United States, South Korea and others to respond, and North Korea will most sincerely and cynically use that response to do other things like perhaps testing another nuclear device," he said. "In any event, it seems very unlikely that we will have much in the way of intensive dealings diplomatically with the North Koreans this year."

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Filed under: China • North Korea • Phillipines • South Korea • South Korea
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