posted on Mon 15 May 2017 5:13 PM
Consultations on the DPRK’s Latest Missile launch

Tomorrow afternoon (16 May), at the request of Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US, Security Council members are scheduled to hold consultations to discuss the 14 May missile launch conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). There will be a briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Miroslav Jenča and the US is expected to propose an outcome, most likely a press statement, although some Council members did not rule out the possibility that the US could seek a stronger response.

According to the DPRK’s state news agency, the latest missile launch involved a newly developed mid/long-range strategic ballistic rocket referred to as Hwasong-12. The test aimed to verify “the tactical and technological specifications of the newly developed ballistic rocket capable of carrying a large-size nuclear warhead”. The missile was reported to have reached an altitude of more than 2,000 kilometres and travelled about 800 kilometres before landing in the sea west of Japan. It seems the missile was launched at a steep angle to avoid hitting neighbouring countries. According to some experts, it would have had a range of 4,000 kilometres if fired on a standard trajectory.
Initial reactions by the ROK, Japan and the US, as well as by independent experts, seemed to confirm Pyongyang’s claim that the test represented another technological step toward the development of an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the US mainland. The missile appeared to be the most powerful that Pyongyang has tested so far, reaching higher and farther than any of the previous ones. Experts expressed scepticism, however, that the missile could carry a nuclear warhead, and also questioned the DPRK’s claim that it had mastered the re-entry technology which is needed to return a warhead to the atmosphere from space.

The 14 May launch comes only two weeks after the DPRK’s previous missile test on 29 April, just a day after the Security Council held its ministerial-level meeting on the denuclearisation of the DPRK, initiated by the US during its Council presidency. At that meeting (S/PV. 7932), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the US policy of strategic patience was over and called on the Council to act, stating that the international community had for too long been “reactive” in its response. He called on member states to fully implement the sanctions measures in resolutions 2321 and 2270, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with the DPRK, suspend the flow of DPRK guest workers abroad, impose bans on imports, especially coal, and increase the country’s financial isolation through additional sanctions against entities and individuals. He also said the US would not hesitate to sanction third-country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s “illegal activities” and use military action if necessary.

Following the latest missile test, the US said in a press statement issued by the White House that the test should serve “as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions” against the DPRK, while reiterating that the US maintains an “ironclad commitment” to stand with its allies in the face of the serious threat posed by the DPRK. The statement also noted that the missile had landed closer to Russia than to Japan and that the US president “cannot imagine that Russia is pleased”.

While at press time there were no reports of any official Chinese reaction to the DPRK’s latest provocation, China continues to emphasise the importance of dialogue and negotiations to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. At the 28 April Council meeting, China expressed its firm commitment to the implementation of all relevant Council resolutions, but also pointed out that the DPRK had accelerated the development of its nuclear programme after the suspension in 2008 of the six-party talks. (These talks involved China, the DPRK, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the US.) While noting that China was not “a focal point for resolving the problem on the peninsula”, in a clear reference to the US’ insistence on the need for Beijing to use its leverage, it expressed its willingness to contribute to a solution and reiterated the “double suspension proposal” it had made earlier. This proposal, which builds on the dual-track approach of promoting parallel progress on denuclearisation and the establishment of a peace mechanism, calls for the suspension of nuclear and missile activities by the DPRK and the suspension of large-scale military exercises by the US and the ROK, with a view to bringing both sides back to the negotiating table. China also stressed the need to fully implement the Council’s DPRK-related resolutions, not only with regard to sanctions, but also with regard to the provisions calling for a resumption of the six-party talks. Finally, China reiterated its firm opposition to the deployment in the ROK of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system—the anti-missile system referred to as THAAD.

Russia has also been very clear in advocating a greater emphasis on engagement with the DPRK to solve the nuclear issue. In response to the DPRK’s latest missile test, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that Russia was “categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear powers”, but also that the international community must return to dialogue with the DPRK and “stop scaring it and find ways to resolve these problems peacefully”. Moreover, Russia’s Ministry of Defence disputed the US’ claim that the missile had landed close to the Russian coast and in any way constituted a threat to Russia. In the 28 April Council meeting, Russia condemned the DPRK’s provocations and confirmed its support for the sanctions resolutions adopted by the Council, but also said the DPRK would probably not give up its nuclear weapons as long as it believed there was a direct threat to its security, which is how Pyongyang perceived the joint military exercises conducted by the US and its allies. Russia also criticised the THAAD deployment as “an additional destabilising factor” that the US and the ROK needed to review. Like China, Russia emphasised the need to return to six-party talks and expressed support for the Chinese suspension proposal and call for parallel progress.

Following the recent election of Moon Jae-in as president of the ROK, the reaction of the ROK to the most recent test is being closely watched. Moon, who took office on 10 May, has advocated a more conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang than his predecessors, emphasising the need for dialogue. He was quoted as having told Chinese president Xi Jinping that the resolution to the nuclear issue “must be comprehensive and sequential, with pressure and sanctions used in parallel with negotiations.” Following the missile test, Moon stressed that dialogue is only possible if the DPRK changes its attitude. As a candidate, he expressed opposition to the THAAD deployment, although it is not clear what his current position is.

In light of these recent statements, it is unclear what reaction to expect from the Council in response to the DPRK’s recent provocations and how much scope there is for the US to push for further action. There was no Council press statement immediately following the DPRK’s 28 April failed missile launch, but it seems the US has signaled its intention to seek the adoption of another sanctions resolution, targeting among other things the supply of crude oil to the DPRK, although the status of its discussions with China about this is unclear.

In other developments, the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee met last Wednesday to continue its consideration of the recommendations contained in the final report from its Panel of Experts (S/2017/150), which the Committee received on 30 January. It seems the discussions were dominated by China and the US, with the US expressing support for all of the recommendations, while China was more cautious. However, China has apparently shown some flexibility with regard to some of the recommendations.