Editorial: International community must respond strongly to satellite launch by North Korea

North Korea has crossed the line, its behavior outrageous. It has notified an international organization that it plans to launch an earth observation satellite between February 8 and 25. Technology used for rockets and ballistic missiles are essentially the same. Pyongyang claims the launch is a peaceful use of its technology, but this is nothing but a missile-launching test.

Indifferent to criticism from nations around the world, North Korea has been moving ahead with preparations for the launch. If it should carry out this plan, its actions would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. And the council has been discussing resolutions for new sanctions following the country’s fourth nuclear test carried out only a month ago. The announcement of the planned satellite launch is a serious provocation against the international community and could trigger a crisis. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, must abort this plan.

North Korea says that the satellite will be launched from the northwestern part of the country toward the south, flying over the Sakishima Islands, part of Okinawa Prefecture, and one of its stages will fall into waters off the Philippines. It will follow a similar trajectory to that of the upgraded version of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile launched in December 2012. But this time, North Korea is apparently seeking to test new technology for larger missiles and other features.

It is believed that North Korea is trying to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the U.S. mainland. At the same time, it is aiming to reduce the size of its nuclear warheads through nuclear tests. Pyongyang apparently believes that if the country can possess nuclear missiles, it would be able to deter possible attacks by other nations. But we must not allow this situation to progress that far.

North Korea has continually used missile launches and other provocative acts as a bargaining chip to press the United States to engage in talks and to preserve its regime. But this time, it seems that Kim Jong-un is hoping to show off North Korea’s offensive capabilities to other countries as well as to its own people. In addition, February 16 is the anniversary of the late leader Kim Jong-il’s birth. Kim Jong-un no doubt also has in mind the Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which will be convened for the first time in 36 years in May this year. The planned launch also reflects the regime’s impatience at not achieving satisfactory results as the country continues to suffer from economic difficulties.

If this situation continues, North Korea will become further isolated in the world community, and it will be impossible to improve its people’s lives. The regime must face up to reality.

Now is the time for the international community to stand united, but one must wonder why the U.N. Security Council has not pursued sanctions following the recent nuclear test? In particular, the difference in degree of enthusiasm between the United States and China is a matter of concern.

The United States would like to impose severe sanctions, including an embargo on oil. It maintains a stern stance, saying that it will never hold talks with North Korea until the country makes concessions. On the other hand, China has taken a more cautious approach, believing the situation could turn more dangerous if North Korea is driven into a corner. The United States and China are faulting one another for their competing postures, but there is no time to waste.

It is worrisome that China cannot exert as much influence on North Korea as it has in the past. North Korea carried out its latest nuclear test with no prior notification, though it used to issue one in the past. In addition, the announcement of the planned rocket launch was made on the very day that a top Chinese envoy responsible for issues involving North Korea was visiting Pyongyang. This has made China lose face and is a clear indication that North Korea makes light of China’s influence. China should become more serious about imposing economic sanctions even as it continues to engage in dialogue with North Korea.

First, conflicts of interest must be reconciled, and the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions should be imposed promptly. The United States and China should take up leading roles and send a clear message that North Korea must exercise self-control.

The lack of international cooperation could result in a respite for North Korea. Also, we must be aware that the six-party talks to discuss North Korea’s nuclear issues have not been able to halt its nuclear ambitions or missile development, but rather have ended up enabling it to improve its technology. As it is becoming harder to predict Kim Jong-un’s behavior, we must build a strong international coalition against North Korea.

(Originally published on February 6, 2016)