It had become an article of faith among the media and punditgentsia that North Korea would launch a long-range missile on Oct. 10 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Workers Party. But while Pyongyang has been publicly emphatic about having the sovereign right and intent to launch, it never declared it would launch on Oct. 10.
The latest available satellite imagery shows no missile at the launch site or any indications of an imminent launch. In the past, North Korea took weeks to prepare for a test launch after a missile arrived at the site. Nor has North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization of an impending launch, as it did prior to previous missile tests when it declared a specific launch date and missile stage splashdown zones.
Although Pyongyang will not launch a missile to commemorate the 70th anniversary, the regime will certainly conduct missile and nuclear tests in the future, when they would achieve technical and political objectives. Regardless of the timing of the launch, North Korea continues to develop and refine its nuclear and missile threats to the U.S. and its allies, all in direct violation of several U.N. resolutions.
Washington should be preparing, in consultations with Seoul and Tokyo, to impose more stringent measures to respond when North Korea again defies U.N. resolutions. The Obama administration should also press China to no longer obstruct a more meaningful international response.
Through the Glass Darkly
Speculation of an October missile launch was initially triggered by media misinterpretation of satellite imagery analysis of the Sohae missile launch facility. Construction activity observed at the missile launch, including an environmental/concealment cover, was part of ongoing upgrades rather than preparations for a launch.
North Korean regime statements strengthened the perception of an anniversary launch. North Korean official media reported that the regime is “in the final stage” of developing a new observation satellite. By late September, North Korean scientists stated that a launch was “imminent,” but it is “very wrong” for people to “think that we are about to launch a satellite on a particular festival day, on a particular anniversary.”
When the Oct. 10 anniversary passes without a missile launch, some experts may offer several incorrect interpretations, including technical problems, Chinese pressure, North Korean desire to improve relations with Seoul, and internal regime dynamics. Some experts have already credited Kim Jong-un for “exhibiting greater concern for improving [North Korea] public welfare” and claimed that Kim “has matured and triumphed” over hardliners.
China Remains Impediment to International Response
In late September, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that Beijing was “opposed to “any actions that might cause tension in the Korean Peninsula or violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.” While some interpreted it as a rare move indicting that Beijing would not tolerate further North Korean provocations, China characteristically refrained from criticizing its ally directly.
Despite repeated speculation that Beijing has adopted a tougher stance toward North Korea, China has always blocked meaningful U.N. responses and adopted a value-neutral position by calling on both Koreas to show restraint, though only North Korea is guilty. Beijing is currently pressuring Seoul not to deploy the THAAD missile defensive system to better protect its citizens rather than confronting North Korea to abandon its prohibited offensive nuclear and missile programs.
What Washington Should Do
Washington should be consulting with Seoul and Tokyo to devise a common response to a North Korean missile launch. The allied response should include:
- Close loopholes in U.N. Resolution 2094, such as including Article 42 of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which allows for enforcement by military means. This would authorize naval ships to intercept, board, and inspect North Korean ships suspected of transporting precluded nuclear, missile, and conventional arms, components, or technology.
- Adopt a more comprehensive list of prohibited items and materials. The U.N. Experts Group identified several items and materials critical to Pyongyang’s nuclear programs that should be—but have not been—added to the list of products banned for transfer to North Korea.
- Publicly identify and sanction all foreign companies, financial institutions, and governments assisting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Target financial and regulatory measures against any entity suspected of helping North Korean nuclear, missile, and conventional arms; criminal activities; money laundering; or import of luxury goods.
- Impose third-party sanctions. The U.S. should penalize entities, particularly Chinese financial institutions and businesses, that trade with those on the sanctions list or export prohibited items. The U.S. should also ban financial institutions that conduct business with North Korean violators from access to the U.S. financial network.
- Augment efforts to get information into North Korea. The U.S. should deepen its partnership with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia to disseminate timely outside information into North Korea.
- Impose sanctions for North Korean human rights violations. The U.S. has yet to impose any human rights-related sanctions 18 months after a U.N. commission of inquiry concluded that the regime has committed “crimes against humanity.” By contrast, the U.S. has targeted Zimbabwe, Congo, and Burma for human rights violations and sanctioned by name the presidents of Zimbabwe and Belarus.
For its part, after a prohibited missile or nuclear test, South Korea should:
- Resume propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ, dramatically increasing broadcasting into North Korea including assessing the viability of using drones along the North’s coasts, and removing any restrictions on non-government organizations sending information leaflets via balloons into North Korea. The August land mine crisis showed the sensitivity of the Kim Jong-un regime to information psychological operations.
- Sever its involvement in the Kaesong industrial park. The joint business venture was always more on political than economic objectives. Since its inception, the Kaesong venture failed to achieve its primary objective of inducing economic and political reform in North Korea and moderating the regime’s belligerent foreign policy.
- Enact a North Korean human rights bill. After ten years of debate, it is time to implement legislation to send a strong message that Seoul actively opposes the human rights abuses committed by the Kim regime.
Preparing for the Inevitable
Pyongyang’s extensive construction efforts at its missile and nuclear test facilities reflect the continued prominence the regime devotes to its prohibited weapons programs. Kim Jong-un has vowed to “increase the production of precision and miniaturized nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.”
Although Pyongyang won’t launch a missile on Oct. 10, it is only a matter of time until it does. The U.S. should be using the time to prepare a more extensive and effective response to the inevitable forthcoming North Korean provocation and violation of U.N. resolutions.