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North Korean Missile Tests - testing Japan-China-South Korea relations

Updated On: Jul 07, 2006

While the North Korean missile tests were not unexpected as the US missile defence command NORAD, Russian surveillance as well as Japanese monitors were all keenly watching the preparations for the launch, it still managed to cause a great deal of confusion and uproar when it finally took place.

There are several negative impacts of the missile tests on regional peace and stability. The most important of which was the considerable damage that the tests had exerted on Chinese prestige. China, which had staked its reputation on the Korean Peninsula reconciliation process had taken a severe blow from the tests having used its credential to persuade regional powers of the usefulness of a diplomatic process to resolve the issue.

One positive outcome of the tests is that it seemed to have hardened the resolve of the other five member states of the six-party talks to return to the negotiating table. This was the stance by the Russian and Chinese representatives to the UN as well as their South Korean counterparts. Even the US which had threatened drastic actions before the launches took an unexpected moderate line and urged the return to the negotiating table as it dispatched Christopher Hill, US representative to the six party talks, for meetings in Beijing. The US is remarkably calm despite the symbolic act of North Korea launching the missile on the US Independence Day 4th July. The North Korean missiles were timed to launch within minutes of Tuesday's liftoff of Discovery, which blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral in the firstU.S. space shuttle launch in a year.

Perhaps un-related, but still a positive twist in Japan-China relations may be useful at this juncture as the various parties in the six-party talks contemplate their next response to North Korea.  In the clearest sign yet that the Chinese government is looking beyond the Koizumi era and seizing the opportunity to improve ties with Japan, a special team  headed by State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan had been set up to deal with Japan affairs.  The team apparently is recommending a less confrontational stance towards Japan ahead of the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender when Koizumi may visit the Yasukuni shrine again.

A warming of ties between Japan and China would be important not only for the general peace and prosperity of the Northeast region, but could provide impetus for common agreement in dealing with the challenges at the Korean peninsula.

South Korea relations with Japan has also been in the news recently because of Japan’s warning to a South Korean ship that entered Japanese-claimed waters to conduct a maritime survey near disputed islets.  Early this week, tensions rose about the survey around Takeshima / Dokdo, but this has since subsided.  The North Korean missile tests probably overshadowed this ongoing terroritorial disputes for the time being, and hopefully would also bring Japan and South Korea to the realization that other imminent problems are in the horizon which would need their coordination and cooperation.

More promising steps could be taken if the Northeast Asian powers would put aside their differences to jointly deal with North Korea’s ballistic brinkmanship. Indeed some Japanese scholars in response to the North Korean missile crisis had opined that Japan’s poor ties with its Northeast Asian neighbours because of the Yasukuni shrine visits and other territorial disputes “hobble” Japan in its efforts to muster a united front against North Korea.

Sources:

U.S. officials: North Korea tests long-range missile (CNN, 5 July 2006)

U.S. chides N. Korea on missile testing (AP, 5 July 2006)

Defiant N. Korea fires series of missiles (AP, 5 July 2006)

North Korea launches missiles, test fails (Straits Times, 5 July 2006)

NKorea's Taepodong-2 could threaten Alaska and Hawaii (Channelnewsasia, 5 July 2006)

North Korea launches volley of missiles on US holiday (Channelnewsasia, 5 July 2006)

N Korea tests long-range missile (BBC, 5 July 2006)

U.S. official calls tests 'provocative' but not a direct threat (CNN, 4 July 2006)

Special Chinese team to boost ties with Japan (Straits Times, 6 July 2006)

Poor ties with neighbours hobble Japan (Straits Times, 7 July 2006)