North Korea threatens action

May 27, 2009
Jack Bremer

Another missile is fired and US spy satellites spot renewed activity at plutonium plant

International anxiety about North Korea's nuclear weapons programme has intensified overnight with three pieces of bad news from the Korean peninsula: first, another short-range missile was fired late on Tuesday, the sixth in two days; second, the regime appears to have restarted the plutonium reactor where it produces fuel for nuclear warheads; and, third, Kim Jong-il's regime has threatened military action against South Korea, claiming it is no longer bound by the armistice which ended the Korean war in 1953.

The ground-to-ship missile was fired late on Tuesday, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, which also claims there are signs of imminent further launches of missiles.

The reopening of the reactor at Yongbyon has been detected by US spy satellites, according to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper. Steam from the plant has been spotted, as has the opening and closing of doors to storage facilities. The activity suggests that North Korea is again extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods. In the past, the US has warned that this could lead to a military strike on the country.

The North's threat of military action against South Korea comes in response to Seoul's decision, announced on Tuesday, to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a US-led campaign which involves searching ships to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction.

Joining the PSI was "a natural obligation", said South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan. "It will help control North Korea's development of dangerous material."

Kim Jong-il's regime has repeatedly warned that the South's participation in the PSI would be tantamount to a declaration of war. An army statement issued by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said: "Any hostile act against our peaceful vessels including search and seizure will be considered an unpardonable infringement on our sovereignty, and we will immediately respond with a powerful military strike."

Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, the Washington Post
: In theory China could pressure Kim to give up his weapons - it has the power and influence. But the fact is, China doesn't want to. Beijing is content to live with a nuclear and anti-Western North Korea. While China fears a collapsed North that would flood its struggling northeast with refugees, it also fears a unified, democratic, prosperous Korea allied with the United States. China wants a puppet state in North Korea, which is why, far from joining in sanctions, it steadily increases its economic investment there.

Leslie Gelb, the Daily Beast: Of course, the United States could utterly destroy North Korea at any time with an all-out air and missile attack, and that would be the end of the North Korea threat forever. There's only one problem - the South Koreans are absolutely opposed to the United States doing this. Why? The North has more than 10,000 artillery pieces and rockets poised on the DMZ that could hit Seoul within minutes.

Robert Fox, the Guardian: Kim Jong-il is clearly still in bad shape after his stroke last year, and the latest bout of erratic behaviour may be an early showing of symptoms that the succession battle is already under way. [But the] underground test has significance well beyond the domestic upheavals of North Korea. It is a bad day indeed for the attempt to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the run-up to the renewal, and possible replacement, of the current Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (1971) next year.

Kerry Brown, the Independent: The rising influence of the army worries many analysts, with signs of discontent within the country itself. This raises the question of who, in fact, is really calling the shots. In the end, though, it may be that negotiations are the only option for the DPRK. Seeking all-out conflict would mean, even to the hardline leadership, the end of all they have striven for. For China, it would be horribly destabilising, and for the US, EU, and Russia, the last thing they want.

Laura Trevelyan, UN correspondent for the BBC: The question is what kind of sanctions against North Korea can be agreed and whether they will be effective in getting this unpredictable nation to rejoin talks on dismantling its nuclear programme. Western diplomats will be watching closely to see whether China will back tough sanctions. China has been reluctant to back measures which it believes could destabilise its erratic neighbour.

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