People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korea missile launch in Seoul.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in South Korea today for talks on containing North Korea, after the regime fired almost 90 rockets over a period of four weeks and stepped up activity at its nuclear test site.
Obama’s trip to Seoul, where he will meet President Park Geun Hye, coincides with a public holiday in the North to mark the founding of its 1.2 million-strong army, which could include a military parade. The South has warned that Kim Jong Un’s regime is ready to test a nuclear device at any time as it uses its weapons as leverage to gain food and energy aid.
Ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is a centerpiece of U.S. policy in Asia, and Obama has insisted Kim renounce his nuclear ambitions before international talks can resume that could reward the North with aid. The North says its program is a deterrent against a U.S.-led invasion, and last month fired missiles capable of reaching as far as Japan, which Obama has also visited this week.
“Boosting activity at the nuclear test site before Obama’s visit is part of North Korea’s strategy to win the spotlight,” Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone. “It gets Obama’s attention and pressures him into taking a softer line on North Korea. To achieve that goal, a small-scale military parade marking the founding anniversary of the military is also possible.”
Appealing to China
South Korean Defense Ministry officials said this week that activity at North Korea’s underground test site at Punggye-ri signaled it may soon detonate a fourth device, while recognizing the possibility that the North may be bluffing. Commercial satellite imagery taken April 23 shows movement of vehicles and materials “probably related to preparations for a detonation,” said 38 North, a blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Park spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 23 and urged him to dissuade the North from any test, while Obama yesterday said China was “critically important” in helping rein the North in. A Foreign Ministry official warned North Korea that Chinese aid to the country may be affected if it carried out another test, the Asahi newspaper reported today, citing an unidentified Chinese official.
North Korea should “expect a firm response from the international community,” if it carries out another test, Obama said in a written response to questions in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. North Korea’s failure to give up its nuclear program “coupled with its provocative actions, especially against South Korea, is the reason why Pyongyang is more isolated than ever,” Obama wrote.
North Korea’s access to cheap rockets provides a near-unlimited potential for saber rattling as it seeks to wring concessions out of the international community for any steps toward disarmament. The country fired the missiles in late February and March, coinciding with annual U.S.-South Korea military drills it has labeled a “dress rehearsal” for invasion.
“Launches fall in step with North Korea’s long-term pursuit of greater food and energy assistance through increased bargaining power,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “It’s about gaining the upper hand ahead of negotiations by relying on what it has comparative advantage in.”
The 87 projectiles North Korea fired in recent weeks would have fetched anywhere from $7 to $20 million in the international market, an amount that dwarfs production costs, according to estimates by defense analysts including David Wright, co-director of global security at the Union of Concerned Scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By comparison Pyongyang spent $646 million in 2012 on luxury imports such as wine and jewelry for its elite, South Korean lawmaker Yoon Sang Hyun has calculated.
The missiles are worth a fraction of the aid the North might secure by curtailing its weapons program. It was promised 240,000 tons of food worth at least $200 million when it agreed with the U.S. in 2012 to halt missile and nuclear testing, a deal that later collapsed.
The U.S. also provided North Korea with more than $1.3 billion in food and energy aid between 1995 and 2008, according to a Congressional Research Service report, before the failure of international disarmament talks the following year.
Securing more help may be key to the regime’s survival as it struggles to grow its economy and feed its people. Gross domestic product per capita in the North is $1,800 while it is $33,200 in South Korea, the Central Intelligence Agency estimates, and more than 1 million people may have died from famine in the 1990s, according to a report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
The recent missile launches, some in violation of United Nations resolutions, included six Scuds, two Rodongs and more than 70 unguided Free Rocket Over Ground, or FROGs, capable of reaching Seoul, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. Each FROG would cost $10,000 to $20,000 to construct while the North can market Scuds and Rodongs for $1 to $3 million, said analysts such as Markus Schiller, an aerospace engineer at Germany’s Schmucker Technologie.
North Korea fired Rodongs on March 26 just as Obama hosted a meeting at The Hague between Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where containing the North Korean threat was discussed. The Rodongs are capable of reaching all of Japan, and North Korea is also seeking to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the U.S.
“A rocket landing in Seoul or Tokyo would simply mean war and trigger a massive exodus of foreign capital,” Hong Soon Jick, a senior fellow at the Hyundai Research Institute in Seoul, said by phone. North Korea would “cease to exist” if it started a war, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said in November.