Rockets from the East

The Economist has a good and thoughtful round-up of the recent flurry about North Korea's provocative missile trials.

On the first note Pakistan and not North Korea is the most dangerous country in Asia according to the Economist's editors but still we should worry, at least a bit.

'With its medieval economy and eccentric leader, the Hermit Kingdom often seems more tragi-comic than threatening. By many measures, North Korea is not even the most terrifying country in Asia; that dubious honour belongs to Pakistan (see leader and survey). Evil though Mr Kim undoubtedly is, the chief dangers his regime poses to outsiders are often accidental: that one of its rockets will unintentionally hit Japan, or that North Korea's economy will collapse (something that terrifies both China and South Korea). Mr Kim claimed that his previous launch—of a Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998—put into orbit a satellite which then warbled patriotic tunes back from space. In fact, although that rocket flew farther than this week's ones, its final stage plopped into the Pacific.'


'Yet there are still grounds for worry. Mr Kim would not be the first to claim a space programme as disguise for a weapons programme, and rockets that can lift other things into space can carry warheads too.'

But what is the point then? Well, Mr Kim wants to be taken seriously of course ... 'Iran and India' seriously. I think the Economist's point about the six-ways talks is on the spot. Mr Kim saw an opportunity and took it.

'So what is Mr Kim up to? Miffed at America's recent crackdown on his kleptocratic regime's hard-currency take from dollar counterfeiting, drug running and the like, this week's display was partly a rocket-fuelled raspberry at George Bush. It may also partly have been intended as a technology demonstration for the few countries still in the market to buy North Korean missiles, such as Iran (if so, it did not work well). But Mr Kim's biggest target was surely the six-way talks; in particular, he wants to be treated more like Iran or, especially, India.'

The future path depends much on China according to The Economist ...

'The temptation for a wounded China will be to blame all this on America and Japan. China does not want to antagonise the unpredictable Mr Kim; and it is keen to draw South Korea closer in the game of regional rivalries (both countries have rows with Japan over disputed islands). The result could be a new round of regional suspicion and rivalry—or worse.

Alternatively China could shoulder some real responsibility for security in East Asia and close ranks against Mr Kim. That should start with a clear condemnation from the UN Security Council. But it should go further. Loth to apply sanctions, China props up Mr Kim's regime. Holding back some of that largesse would show him that he cannot destabilise the neighbourhood and get away with it. A lot more than the awkward Mr Kim's future depends on it.