The controversy that surrounded North Korea’s highly secretive launch of another round of missile tests is a reminder yet again of the potential for conflict the nation presents.
The latest test – which the Pyongyang government claimed was a three-stage rocket bid to send an observational satellite into space – was widely condemned for blatantly violating UN Security Council resolutions which ban North Korea from using nuclear and missile technology that could facilitate the firing of long-range rockets.
Although the eventual launch did nothing to ease the internal situation for its famine-stricken people, North Korea’s latest adventure makes those like me, who live in the other half of the world’s only divided country, jittery about the future prospects for war and peace.
And what makes one particularly worried that something explosive could break out at any time is the fact that, in the absence of a peace treaty, only the longest truce in modern history stands between these mortal enemies and the resumption of war.
A never-ending threat?
Over the last few years North Korea has given the international community plenty of cause for concern, but of course it’s here in South Korea where one finds the most prevalent sense of anger towards the belligerent communist state.
This is after all the epicenter of a peninsula whose two conflicting ideologies are separated by a crude borderland that happens to be the most heavily fortified of its kind on earth.
Things could not have been helped by the revelation from a senior South Korean official that Pyongyang’s ability to mount a nuclear device on a ballistic weapon would be cause for an existential threat to his country.
South Korea, for all its remarkable economic ascent, is no safe ground.
Playing for Aid
According to Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato institute, North Korea’s latest act of defiance has a number of motives.
These include reclaiming its reputation foiled by a failed rocket launch in April, boosting nationalism, enhancing the credentials of ‘Great Successor’ Kim Jong-un, and pressurising Washington to offer a deal.
The Washington angle seems a highly plausible one.
North Korea has a history of resorting to ugly brinkmanship at times of dire internal need and Washington has a history of providing food and other energy-related aid to the country on the condition that it sign a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear testing and enrichment activities.
If anything, considering the US suspended the deal earlier this year citing North Korean violations, the latest rocket launch should be seen through this prism.
North Korea, one of the poorest countries on earth and virtually orphaned since the collapse of its Soviet benefactor in the 1990s, is no position to risk an all-out major confrontation – especially when China, its only friend, was said to have quietly been persuading it to abandon its plans for the launch.
But if there’s a clear victim from North Korea’s latest actions, that victim is the unification of the two Koreas – a notion that has gathered momentum in the last decade.
The most active debate now underway must be on how to find the most effective and rational way of dealing with Pyongyang’s occasional tantrums, tantrums that render a deathblow to long held dreams of a united peninsula.
Yet it wouldn’t be wholly incorrect to suggest that, despite their maverick behavior over the last few years, things are not so dramatic in North Korea as they seem.
Because despite the occasional fire and temperaments that appear to define them, making an accurate assessment of their nuclear and missile trajectories never rules out it purely being a being a cry for more aid and assistance, something this near-starving nation badly needs.
In the end, rocket launch or no rocket launch, the maintenance of a strong military posture will no doubt one day succumb to peace.