North Korea’s third nuclear test provided the ideal opportunity for the United States and South Korea to respond with their own displays of military muscle. Two days after the test, South Korea showcased a cruise missile that Seoul claims can hit targets anywhere in the North. This month was also the first time in almost two decades that an American nuclear submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles entered South Korean waters.
Thus, the endless cycle of North Korean provocation, joint military drills and verbal war continues. Yet it remains difficult to find to find good analysis on next steps that need to be taken to address the impasse on the Peninsula.
In defiance of international warnings, North Korea recently went ahead with its third nuclear test. On 12 February, an explosion was set off in the country’s northeast, close to the location of the two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang promptly declared the test a success, with its state-owned news agency announcing that the nuclear device was smaller and lighter yet more powerful than previous devices. International condemnation was swift and unambiguous. The UN Security Council – including North Korea‘s sole major ally China – strongly condemned the test and vowed to take further action against Pyongyang.
Since 1998, North Korea is the only country known to have tested a nuclear weapon, an act which is now regarded as highly provocative and the behavior of a ‘rogue state’. And yet nuclear testing is still not banned under international law. Indeed, the treaty that would prohibit all nuclear tests – the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) – has now been in limbo for more than 15 years.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year message emphasized, among other issues, the importance of inter-Korean relations. While many observers read this as a signal that North Korea plans to open-up in 2013, some bloggers and defectors beg to differ, claiming that Kim’s message contained the same old rhetoric of the past half century.
The North Korean leader’s message was well-received by some Western and South Korean media outlets. The New York Times, for example, suggested that Kim’s speech was an ‘overture’ to the South. The paper was particularly intrigued by his comment that the “key to ending the divide of the nation and achieving reunification is to end the situation of confrontation between the North and the South”. Indeed, the same can also be said of Kim’s belief that “a basic precondition to improving North-South relations and advancing national reunification is to honor and implement North-South joint declarations”.
Others dug a little deeper. South Korea’s Unification Ministry blog parsed the statement by keywords and counted that the word ‘unification’ was used 22 times and often in conjunction with “frequent”. This, the blog concludes, reflects a pattern that has emerged over the past three years that suggests that increasing openness by North Korea is on the horizon.
Many observers were also intrigued by the change in format for the New Year’s message. Instead publishing his statement via the North Korean press – as favored by his late father – Kim emulated his grandfather and gave a televised address. This, suggests the North Korean Leadership Watch blog, adds credibility to arguments that Kim has been trying to emulate Kim il-Sung in order to win wider support among the North Korean population. The founder of North Korea was thought to be widely loved by the population, whereas Kim Jong-il was more feared than respected. Some reports have even speculated that Kim Jung-un intentionally gained weight and mimicked the way his grandfather walked and clapped.
TOKYO – The Unha-3 rocket launched from Sohae in North Korea on the morning of December 12 passed through Japanese air space over the island of Okinawa 12 minutes later, and crashed into the Pacific Ocean roughly 300 kilometers east of the Philippines. The launch could be considered a mild surprise, because South Korean intelligence sources had suggested that it had been canceled.
More surprising was the success of the launch, which makes North Korea the tenth member of the world’s “Space Club” (the ninth member was Iran, which successfully launched its Safir rocket in 2008). The Unha-3, a three-stage rocket weighing 92 tons, follows the Unha-2, which failed spectacularly in 2009, so the evident progress that North Korea has made in its missile technology in such a short period has shocked governments around the world.
The United Nations Security Council responded by debating a resolution on strengthening sanctions against North Korea. Only China – no surprise – opposed new sanctions, stressing that “actions that heighten tension on the Korean Peninsula should not be taken.” China has agreed to Security Council resolutions against Iran on several occasions, but it has backed sanctions against North Korea on only two, both coming after the North conducted nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009).
Following her election as South Korea’s first female president on December 19, 2012, Park Geun-hye identified North Korea as one of the main challenges facing her administration. Her approach to relations with the North will likely be different from her predecessors as she seeks a middle ground between Lee Myung-bak’s principled engagement and the unconditional engagement of the Sunshine Policy era. In particular, Park has spoken extensively about the need to establish a trust-based relationship with North Korea. Her success in establishing a trust-based approach will, in part, depend upon the effective management of issues relating to the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime boundary between the two Koreas in the West Sea. However, Park’s diplomatic efforts are likely to be compromised by Pyongyang’s continued refusal to recognize the NLL. And while this dispute requires an urgent solution, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement over how to define the sea boundary between North and South Korea is likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future.
But why has this issue been so difficult to resolve? One of the main difficulties has been in how to best approach management of the NLL. Toward the end of his term in office, President Roh Moo-hyun sought to address the NLL issue when he visited North Korea as part of the second inter-Korean Summit. President Roh proposed a “West Sea Peace and Cooperation Special Zone” that would allow free access for fishing vessels from both Koreas and the development of a special economic zone in the North Korean port of Haeju. But while the proposal was identified in the Joint Agreement at the end of the summit, no concrete procedures were established and follow-up discussions failed. One of the major sticking points was Pyongyang’s insistence that waters south of the NLL fell under North Korean territory.