In the words of one government observer who bore witness to the end of the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul yesterday, “International cooperation on North Korea cannot get any stronger than this.” In other words, the government had done all it could launch during the nuclear meeting to try and stop North Korea’s long-range rocket launch from going ahead.
President Lee Myung Bak met the leaders of the United States, Japan, China and Russia, all the Six-Party Talks nations, to emphasize that the North Korean rocket launch plan is both a provocative act harmful to Korean Peninsula regional peace and security and a violation of two UN Security Council resolutions.
Rhetorically speaking, results were quite impressive. In the bilateral meeting between South Korea and China, President Hu Jintao commented that the launch was “not good” and that North Korea would be better off focusing on improving the lives of its people; in a meeting between the South Korean leader and Russia, President Dimitry Medvedev noted that “North Korea should put the survival of its people before the launch of long range rockets” and reminded Pyongyang that it cannot live off international aid forever.
Whether any of the harsh words will translate into concrete actions in the capitals concerned is a moot point, of course; nevertheless, it was a change of scene in the context of Russia and China, nations which used to protect North Korea every time it played with international fire like this.
In particular, President Hu’s open opposition to the launch was surprising; though known to be regularly unimpressed at North Korea’s behavior, in past instances Beijing’s leaders have largely resisted the temptation to openly criticize North Korea. Of course, it is possible that he was simply playing to international public opinion, but speaking that way with the leaders of 53 countries representing 90% of world productive capacity forming the audience nevertheless puts a significant degree of pressure on the regime of Kim Jong Eun.
And yet, a spokesman for the North’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed almost boastful yesterday when he retorted that the country “will absolutely not abandon the satellite launch,” and called the problem one of an international community with an insatiable appetite for confrontation rather than a North Korean state with an insatiable appetite for controversy. Evidently, North Korea sees a harvest in money and systemic unity it can yield from this launch, but recent days lead us to wonder whether it will be smaller than they might imagine.
The likely results include the weakening of relations with the United States and reductions in support from Russia and possibly China, too. Equally, it has the potential to provoke a voter backlash in South Korea. And finally, it should impress upon the United States more strongly than ever that there must never again be anything for the North to gain from its provocations.