The successful launch of a satellite by South Korea last week, albeit coming at their third time of trying, has intensified tensions on the Korea peninsula in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear threats and December rocket launch. The South Korean rocket launch and its tacit acceptance by the international community will do nothing to soothe tempers in Pyongyang, tensions that have been raised by international condemnation of their own rocket test and by the imposition of UN sponsored sanctions in its wake. With the world’s attention focusing largely on the Iranian nuclear stand-off, unfolding events on the Korean peninsula serve a timely reminder that the Middle East is not the only nuclear ‘hotspot’ in current global politics.
The most recent episode of hostilities between the Korea’s long-term adversaries began in December last year when Pyongyang defied international opinion and successfully launched a satellite into orbit – a move that was seen by many as a long range missile test in disguise. While the December launch may have been as much about domestic politics as it was to serve a reminder to an international community currently focused elsewhere, the reaction from the government in South Korea has effectively now ramped up inter-Korean tension. These strains will unquestionably be upped further if and when the North decides to conduct its third nuclear test, preparations of which already appear to be underway at the Punggye test site. Making things worse is the fact that Pyongyang has also made explicit threats to its ‘great foe’ the United States, which given progress made by the DPRK in both missile and warhead technology, will be of mounting concern in Washington, not least Tokyo, Seoul, and elsewhere.
For South Korea, the recent rocket launch – whereby a 140 ton Russian-made rocket launched from the Naro Space Centre successfully placed a ROK-made satellite into orbit – appears to compound a tougher stance by the changing government to its erstwhile neighbor. Indeed, recent months have seen very public discussions about moving to integrate more closely with U.S. missile defense architectures in the region; U.S. acquiescence for South Korea to developing longer range ballistic missiles, and even the re-ignition of debate on the option of forward deploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the country (an unlikely option, but a symbolic one to be back on the table).
While the growing divergence either side of the 38th parallel can be overstated – particularly because a functioning nuclear armed long range missile is still beyond the reach of Pyongyang, and because Seoul will unlikely change its long-standing policy of pursuing a denuclearized Korean peninsula – recent events do seem to spell the death knoll for the much maligned Six Party Talks. Indeed, all parties that used to take part in these talks are now quickly running out of room for maneuver – a dynamic that will undoubtedly turn attention again towards China and raise questions about whether or not Beijing can be seen as acting as an honest broker in the region.
All this poses considerable problems for new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as he struggles to balance developments in Northeast Asia with what some see as more pressing problems in the Middle East. It also seems likely to place further strain on U.S. relations with China, as the DPRK’s actions will almost inevitably lead to calls from certain commentators for China to do more. Above all these developments will also place strain on the so called U.S. ‘pivot’ eastwards – a geopolitical shift urgently needed as tensions grow across the Asia-Pacific region – but a move that will be far from straightforward when Washington begins to address the myriad political and strategic realities on the ground in the region.
In short, it is unclear how the DPRK can be convinced or coerced to give up its WMD aspirations, or to implement the reforms that many hoped would accompany the incoming Kim Jong Un leadership. As such, security concerns may continue to grow, and questions may be asked about the continuing validity of U.S. security guarantees and relative military hegemony in the region. Above all, recent events serve as a timely reminder that a denuclearized Korean peninsula and a stable northeast Asian (nuclear) balance remains a difficult task.
by Andrew Futter (ajf[email protected])