Satellite adds further tensions to already fraught East Asian relations

By Jasper Kim Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-13 20:00:09

Three-two-one, blast off. This summarizes North Korea's surprise successful ballistic missile and satellite launch this week, a potential game changer for the region.

China invented fireworks, but North Korea is reinventing how to use its own grand-scale fireworks - in the form of its ballistic missile and satellite technology - to foster diplomatic controversy outside of the DPRK, and patriotic support inside one of the world's most closed and secretive states.

The launch's timing comes at a rare intersect - the upcoming anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death, the one hundred year mark since Kim Il-sung's birth, and looming local elections in South Korea and Japan. The DPRK's launch of its Unha-3 rocket represents its fifth attempt, and likely its first successful launch as verified by the international community. So it seems that "the fifth time is a charm" for North Korea, a feat that South Korea has yet to replicate, and an act that the DPRK firmly believes is within its right to conduct as a sovereign state.

The question now becomes: How will the world react to North Korea's fireworks in the form of its missile and satellite launch?

From South Korea's perspective, another launch attempt has and will continue to be generally met with relative calm concern. This may come as a surprise to those not living in the Korean Peninsula. But as someone who lives in Seoul, mere miles away from the DMZ and Pyongyang, I can attest to the fact that most South Korean nationals view the threat of North Korea's past and present provocative acts - either in the form of verbal or military maneuvers, including missile test launches - as roughly analogous to that of a person who lives in close proximity to a nuclear reactor facility or airport.

That is, although lots of white noise exists, there is very little chance of a calamity. In this sense, South Koreans can opt to either hear the rhetoric from the North, trying to constantly process and calculate every possible likely and unlikely ramification - or simply view the North's acts as mere saber rattling, but this time with an edge.

But such a mindset has its limits, especially for Seoul's policymakers.

As it stands now, South Korea's leadership is on edge due to the Cheonan ship sinking and the relatively more recent Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010, which resulted in both military and civilian deaths. These attacks could have easily escalated but for the US, it had nothing to gain by a second Korean War, militarily, diplomatically, or economically. South Korea's Ministry of Defense has since restructured its rules of engagement allowing for lower ranking military units to have greater military response discretion.

Although South Korea generally has mixed emotions regarding Japan due to its colonial rule from 1910-45, the two states are generally on the same page with respect to North Korea's rocket launch attempts. Specifically, much like South Korea, Japan also views North Korea with concern since it is likely that Tokyo, among other cities in Japan, would be likely targets of the North's missiles. Currently, Japan's postwar Constitution prohibits using its military for acts beyond self-defense. However, self-defense can be defined broadly to include pre-emptive acts in the event that clear and present danger exists.

If pushed, Japan may opt to take the same broad interpretation relating to its Constitution, in which its technology could very quickly be converted for military purposes. Adding to the tension was a recent statement by Japan's Ministry of Defense declaring that any missile over its sovereign territory would be immediately shot down.

Although reports existed that the DPRK's Unha-3 rocket flew over Okinawa, Japan chose not to respond militarily. But the more such happened to Japan's sovereign territory, the higher the possibility that future responses may not be as measured.

Such possibilities of possible miscalculation are something that the international community would not want due to the risk of possible further military confrontations in the Pacific.

As history has shown, local tension can unexpectedly and suddenly lead to military escalation and greater conflict due to unlikely "small swan" events. But much like a spark that triggers a series of sky-ascending fireworks, so too could the continued attempts in the months and years ahead of future missile launch attempts by North Korea.

The author is founder and chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.

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