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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

North Korean Unha-3 Launch: How Effective are Sanctions in the Midst of the Game of Balancing?

Thursday 3 January 2013


by Shubhra Chaturvedi

The North Korean rocket launch on December 12, 2012 in the Pyongyang province, that came after much speculated delay, achieved the goal that it probably aimed at: an immediate deterrent. The launch is a clear indication of North Korea’s intentions of developing the long range capability to deliver nuclear weapons as far as the United States mainland. Though the “peaceful rocket launch” does not classify as the long-range ballistic missile test, it does come across as a statement made by North Korea to its people and the world. What does this test mean for the credibility of the sanctions and the effectiveness of the international isolation?

The Road to Unha-3

North Korea has been called a “rogue state” and is seen as one of the “axis of evil”. The country is economically isolated by the ‘international community’. It has been under the UN sanctions since 2006 when they proceeded with their first nuclear test. The sanctions had got expanded in 2009 after their second nuclear test. In spite of the tight sanctions, Kim Jong-un in April 2012 had stressed on the need to strengthen the military in his first public speech after assuming the leadership of the state. He had claimed how the “first, second and third” priorities were to strengthen the military and to fight the technological superiority “monopolised by imperialists”. The Unha-3 launch came as a consequence of the same claim.
The stress on the development of weapons technology gained momentum after the failed rocket launch in April 2012 in North Korea. That failure had been an embarrassment for the state and was a reality check about the distant goal of intercontinental range ballistic missiles that they wished to develop. The three stage Unha-3 rocket launch with a potential range of 8000-10,000 kms, however, has proved its strong technical capacities and capabilities. The test could be seen as a well planned and well timed move for domestic consumption after the April 2012 fiasco. The launch was well timed just before the death anniversary of Kim Jong Il. While the technical capability of Unha-3 is still being speculated and the intentions of any state cannot be gauged completely, the launch did make the world environment uneasy.

The South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan had suggested that “the government yet again urges North Korea to divert the enormous financial resources wasted on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles to addressing the pressing issue of taking care of the everyday lives of its citizens”. In spite of the staggering economy and the fear of further economic isolations and added entities to the list of sanctions that is usually the consequence of such tests, North Korea proceeded with the launch.

This leads one to think why the sanctions and international isolation that have so far been seen as the most effective ways of dealing with violation of international norms do not seem to work on North Korea.

Unha-3 has not been received pleasantly and the White House Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed that “there has, and remains, a path for North Korea to end its isolation, but that requires abiding by its international obligations, abiding by the United Nations Security Council resolutions that I mentioned before. It has chosen not to, and therefore, there will be consequences for that”. In spite of these harsh statements made by the statesmen across the world, it seems that the sanctions have technically failed to deter North Korea.

China: the Support behind the Launch?

The response from various countries to the North Korean launch has been one of surprise, regret and condemnation. The Philippines condemned the North Korean rocket launch. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it “clear provocation”. The Korean Herald reported the South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan saying that “North Korea‘s launch this time will only result in the deepening of its isolation from the international community”. The Statesman reported Jay Carney saying: “The US President is concerned about North Korea’s behaviour, and has been. He has made non-proliferation a top national security priority and will continue to do that, and he will continue to work with his international partners to put pressure on North Korea, to isolate and to impose conse-quences on it for the actions that it continues to take.” In the midst of all these, the Chinese response was a little more subtle. The multi stage ‘peaceful rocket launch’ was condemned by China too but it also claimed that it would veto any of the radical resolutions put forward by US, Japan and South Korea as reported by Global Times. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that dialogue was the way to go ahead with North Korea. He also added that China believed that the Security Council’s reaction “should be prudent and moderate and conducive to maintaining stability and avoiding escalation of the situation”. The Chinese inclination towards “prudent” solutions forces one to think the credibility and equality of the ‘international norms’.
North Korea violated two resolutions of the Security Council, namely, 1718 and 1874. In spite of that the Chinese balanced approach towards the North Korean test makes one speculate the latent understanding that exists between the two states. It seems highly unlikely that North Korea would go ahead with these tests without prior notice to China. However, even if China was unaware of thee tests, the strong bond that exists between the two states is clear with the extremely subtle response that is evident in the Chinese statements. The game of balancing that the Chinese have always practiced with North Korea to out do the American presence all over the world has reached another level with these statements.
North Korea went ahead with the launch and none of the international actors are sure of the exact means needed to deal with the situation “seriously”. While there is uneasiness in the neighbourhood and all over the world, North Korea has gone ahead with what it wanted without any major consequences as of now except the statements of regret and displeasure form various states.

Is it the Chinese support that ensures North Korea of their survival in the otherwise “hostile” environment that would follow this test? It is too early to say anything about the prospects of North Korea post this launch and yet the dismal state of sanctions is evident. If China decides to veto any radical resolutions the effectiveness of the sanctions will fade away as usual. North Korea has been the exception to the rule with the Chinese support it enjoys. It is important to impose and propagate the uniformity of international norms and condemn the violations or else the spill-over effect of such leverages will be uncalled for in the long run. 

The author is a Research Officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi.

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