All eyes on North Korea

In the final weeks of 2011, the international community’s attention was focused on North Korea. As the world learned of the death of the country’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il many wondered what was next for the isolated regime and its nuclear program under the new leadership of Kim’s successor and youngest song, Kim Jong-Un.

Two months later, under the direction of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea and the United States reached a deal that was hailed as a promising development in nuclear stalemate on the Korean peninsula. During talks in late February, North Korea agreed to freeze all nuclear and missile testing programs and allow nuclear inspectors access to its facilities in return for U.S. food aid. In fact, the agreement marked the first substantive step in Pyongyang-Washington relations in years and was seen as paving the way for the possible resumption of the Six Party talks (6PT) on North Korean denuclearization.

However, last month, North Korea announced plans to fire a long-range rocket between April 12 and 16, causing the international community to reassess the sincerity of the promises made by Pyongyang with regards to its nuclear program. While North Korea maintains that the planned rocket launch is strictly for scientific purposes and will launch a satellite into orbit as part of a large national celebration for the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the ruling Kim dynasty, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and others, have loudly protested the launch, claiming it is really meant to test delivery systems for nuclear warheads.

Despite calls for North Korea to abandon its launch plans, satellite imagery appears to show preparations for a long-range rocket launch at the Dongchang-ri site in northwestern North Korea. As a result, concerned countries in the region have taken action.

In South Korea, the planned rocket launch has sparked renewed calls to extend the country’s conventional missile capability to match the reach of North Korea’s long-range missiles. According to the terms of a treaty signed with the U.S. in 1979 and revised in 2001, South Korea is only permitted to have ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 300 kilometres; however, Seoul is optimistic that Washington will agree to increase the range limit given recent developments in the North. In addition, the South Korean navy has deployed two destroyers to monitor the launch from the west coast, with orders to use their SM-2 surface-to-air missiles against the rocket if it violates South Korean territory. However, the assumed launch angle will make it more difficult to intercept with seaborne missiles, so the army has also readied its PAC-2 Patriot missile systems to intercept the wayward rocket if necessary.

Japan has also bolstered its defences in expectation of the launch, and has deployed three Aegis-equipped destroyers to the East China Sea to prevent the rocket from entering Japanese airspace.

Land-based missile defence systems are also on high alert, with some systems moved to the southernmost Okinawa islands to provide better coverage. In addition, the U.S. announced that it has suspended its plans to send 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance to North Korea. Food aid packages are often key when negotiating with the military-strong, but famine-struck country on its nuclear program.

Nearly four months after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the world is watching North Korea yet again, and, it appears, that not much has changed. As evidenced by the continued preparation for next week’s highly contentious rocket launch, Kim Jong-Un, seems set to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Eager to solidify the legitimacy of his power with senior officials in Pyongyang, the young Kim is poised to entrench his power in the eyes of North Koreas by holding up the country’s nuclear and military capability, and, it appears, placing blame on the west for the continued isolation and impoverishment of citizens.

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Story By: Ashley Milburn, Office of the Asia-Pacific Advisor

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