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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 39, July - August 1999

High Tension over North Korea Missile Plans

Throughout the period under review, speculation abounded that North Korea was about to conduct a second ballistic missile test, following on from a flight conducted on 31 August last year which had a major effect on perceptions, in Japan in particular, of the threat to regional peace posed by Pyongyang. Amid a welter of messages urging and warning North Korea not to test, the following statement by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, South Korean Foreign Minister Hong Soon-Young and Japanese Foreign Minister Mashahiko Koumora - placing the missile issue in the context of general regional relations and prospects for peace - was issued in Singapore on 27 July:

"[The three Ministers] called on North Korea to seize the opportunity, presented in May by [US special representative, former Defense Secretary] Dr. William Perry in Pyongyang, to build a new and positive relationship with its neighbours and potential partners, and to accept the comprehensive and integrated approach which builds on the engagement policy. ... [The Ministers] expressed their deep concern over the possibility of a DPRK missile or satellite launch, and agreed that this action would adversely affect peace and stability on the Korean Peninsular and beyond, and would have serious negative consequences for the DPRK. They urged the DPRK rather to choose to build a positive relationship with its neighbours by foregoing such testing."

Also on 27 July, Japan published its longest-ever - at almost 500 pages - annual Defense Agency report, conspicuous for its emphasis on the North Korean threat. In the Agency's view: "It is easy to predict that the range of North Korean missiles is rapidly lengthening... This sort of missile development, along with the question of possible nuclear weapons development, is a source of great instability for both Asia and the world..."

North Korea has been busy stressing that, if it were to conduct a test, it would have nothing to be ashamed of. For example, on 7 July the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) opined: "We have already repeatedly declared that such things as missile development, production and test-launch belong to our sovereignty and no one has the right to take issue with the rights of a sovereign State."

On 11 August, Chun Yong-taek, the head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, told Parliamentarians in Seoul that North Korea had completed preparations to test the Taepodong II missile (maximum range 4,163 miles) and "appears to be weighing possible economic and political losses and gains before deciding whether to go ahead..." The previous day, US Defense Department spokesperson Ken Bacon told reporters: "We don't anticipate that there will be a missile launch within the next few days or even within the next few weeks..."

The US and North Korea discussed missile issues in Geneva from 3-9 August. The US delegation was led by Ambassador Charles Kartman, Special Envoy for the Korean Peace Talks; the North Korean delegation was led by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan. The two delegation held an inaugural round of talks devoted to the issue in Beijing in June; a third round is scheduled for Berlin in September. On 10 August, US State Department spokesperson James Rubin gave the Administration's assessment of the Geneva discussions:

"What we did...was stress the benefits to North Korea of a regime in which they forswear further testing and we improve our relationships, as opposed to a situation where a further test occurs. ... We had hoped to see some concrete result... We were disappointed that we were not able to achieve a consensus on any of the concrete proposals at this round..."

A possible casualty of any missile test would be the implementation of the October 1994 US-North Korea Framework Agreement detailing the replacement of North Korea's existing nuclear reactors. Japan has expressed serious reservations about continuing with implementation in the face of a provocation as flagrant as a test. However, on 3 August, Rubin stressed that, test or not, the Agreement would remain vital to America's national security:

"We think that regardless of what serious consequences there might be...if the North Koreans test, we shouldn't cut off our nose to spite our face... The Agreed Framework is a very important instrument that benefits the security of the United States and the countries in the region...and we would intend and want to see that programme and Agreement continued, even if we have problems and serious concerns about the missiles..."

On 12 August, the South Korean Parliament approved $3.2 billion of funding - to be raised by increasing electricity charges - as the country's contribution to the $4.6 billion project cost expected to be involved in replacing the reactors. The rest of the money - to be provided to an international consortium, the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organization (KEDO) - is scheduled to be met by Japan ($1 billion - approved by Parliament on 30 June), the European Union ($88 million) and others. North Korea will be expected to pay back the contributors, with no interest payable, over the 20 years following the entry into service of the new reactors. The US is funding the supply of replacement fuel-oil - up to 500,000 tons annually - to offset the loss of power-generation caused by the freezing of North Korea's existing facilities.

Change of US Policy on South Korean Missiles

In Seoul on 29 July, US Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that the United States was now prepared to assist South Korea to develop missiles with a range greater than the 180 km (112 mile) limit agreed by the two countries in 1979. South Korea reportedly wants first to develop missiles with a range of up to 500 km (311 mile) range missile, capable of striking most parts of North Korea. According to Cohen, the context within the decision had been taken was clear: "We hope the message is being received by the Government of North Korea... We support South Korea's interest in becoming a member of the MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] and working with them now in order to accommodate their needs as far as their missile capabilities [are concerned]..."

South Korea has long been seeking this change of US policy. As recently as 7 July, returning from a six-day visit to Canada and the United States, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung told reporters that there was still work to be done to persuade Washington that such a shift was warranted: "The United States expressed concerns that the development of such missiles could provoke our neighbouring nations... But our purpose does not lie there, but in deterring aggression from North Korea..."

Reports: Japan OKs North Korea reactor funds, Associated Press, 30 June; US to begin talks on S. Korea missile plan, Reuters, 5 July; S. Korea says US agrees talks on 500-km missiles, Reuters, 7 July; N. Korea says missile test 'sovereign right', Reuters, 7 July; Japan warns N. Korea poses world security threat, Reuters, 27 July; Japan releases defense report, Associated Press, 27 July; Japan has national security concerns, Associated Press, 27 July; Trilateral Meeting joint press statement, US State Department, 27 July; US to work with Seoul on longer missile range, Reuters, 29 July; US will back project despite N. Korea missile, Reuters, 3 August; Missile row casts shadow on Korean talks, Reuters, 6 August; US says North Korean launch not imminent, Reuters, 10 August; S. Korean - N. Korea missile ready, Associated Press, 11 August; S. Korea OKs N. Korea nuke plant funds, Associated Press, 12 August.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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