- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2016

North Korea defied international warnings Sunday by launching a new long-range rocket — prompting swift condemnation from the United Nations and frustration in Washington and Seoul, which will now formalize long-anticipated talks toward deploying an advanced U.S. missile shield in South Korea despite opposition from China.

In a sign that Pyongyang’s recent provocations have ended years of South Korean hesitation over deployment of the so-called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, U.S. and South Korean military commanders said they will discuss moving ahead with the system “at the earliest possible date.”

Pyongyang claimed Sunday’s launch was merely to put a satellite into orbit, something the North Koreans had warned they would do since last week despite U.S. assertions that the launch would actually be cover for testing ballistic missile technology for long-range nuclear weapons.

U.N. sanctions ban North Korean officials from purchasing or working on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology, and the Obama administration had issued repeated warnings that if Pyongyang went through with the launch, it would represent a direct violation.

At an emergency national security council meeting in Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called Sunday’s launch an “intolerable provocation.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “deeply deplorable,” and Secretary of State John F. Kerry denounced it as a “flagrant violation” of U.N. resolutions.

Pyongyang has been under U.N. sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006, but it has since conducted three atomic tests, including what it called a hydrogen bomb test Jan. 6, as well as numerous ballistic missile launches over the years.

News reports said Sunday’s rocket was fired from North Korea’s west coast, and the nation’s state-controlled media trumpeted the beauty of the launch’s “fascinating vapor” as the rocket cut through the clear blue sky. One report said Pyongyang succeeded in putting a new observation satellite, the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Shining Star 4, into orbit less than 10 minutes after liftoff.

U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials tracking the rocket were more circumspect. Although the U.S. Strategic Command said broadly that it tracked “the missile launch into space,” there was no immediate external confirmation that the satellite achieved orbit.

The joint U.S.-South Korean military statement, meanwhile, said the development — coupled with North Korea’s recent nuclear test — “highlights the serious nuclear, weapons of mass destruction, and ballistic missile threat they pose to the peace and stability of [South Korea] and the entire Asia-Pacific region.”

Wider international condemnation was swift. The U.N. Security Council, which convened a closed-door emergency meeting in New York on Sunday, issued a statement promising to take punitive steps against Pyongyang.

It was not immediately clear what those steps would be.

A draft U.N. resolution prepared by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. has been in negotiation since last month.

The Obama administration has called for a collective ramping-up of economic sanctions against Pyongyang but has faced resistance from China, a permanent U.N. Security Council member and North Korea’s chief trading partner and ally.

While other permanent Security Council members, including Britain, France and Russia, all expressed anger and concern Sunday, China voiced “regret” — a sign that Beijing may attempt to use its veto power to block any resolution that seeks to significantly scale up sanctions against Pyongyang.

Beijing’s posture appeared to frustrate the U.S. and its allies.

“We will ensure that the Security Council imposes serious consequences,” said Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Standing alongside her Japanese and South Korean counterparts at U.N. headquarters, Ms. Power said Pyongyang’s “latest transgressions require our response to be even firmer” and that a new Security Council resolution is “urgent and overdue.”

“We are hopeful that China, like all council members, will see the grave threat to regional, international peace and security, see the importance of adopting tough, unprecedented measures, breaking new ground,” she said.

Some U.S. lawmakers say the Obama administration is overly optimistic.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the U.S. needs to “get serious about the North Korea threat and China’s continued support” for Pyongyang.

“Yet here we are … on the heels of a missile launch and North Korea’s fourth nuclear test — a test that may well represent a significant technological advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program — and there is no sense of urgency or substantive change in U.S. policy,” Mr. Corker wrote in an op-ed published by CNN on Sunday.

However, Mr. Corker made no mention of the announcement about a potential deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea.

Analysts say the announcement represents a significant shift in policy between Washington and Seoul.

While talk of deploying a THAAD has gone behind the scenes for years, U.S. and South Korean officials have long held off on taking action, mainly out of concern that the system would anger China.

Chinese state media outlets have carried articles during recent years accusing Washington of stoking tensions with North Korea purely to create a pretext for expanding America’s military footprint in the region.

With some 30,000 U.S. troops already stationed in South Korea and roughly 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s active assets deployed in the Pacific theater, analysts say, the Chinese believe Washington is bent on doing whatever it takes to position advanced missile systems across the region.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted Sunday to the U.S.-South Korean announcement on THAAD by asserting that the system’s deployment would only escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and damage regional peace and stability.

“When pursuing its own security, one country should not impair others’ security interests,” said Foreign Ministry representative Hua Chunying.

The issue has been sticky for the Park government in Seoul, which has sought to promote an era of diplomacy and economic ties with China despite Beijing’s support for Pyongyang.

Chinese officials have warned that a South Korean embrace of THAAD could damage the warming relations between Seoul and Beijing.

“Until now, the South Korean administration has been reluctant to even publicly discuss the issue due to pressure from China,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

“The Chinese, both in official press and at senior levels, including from President Xi Jinping, have been … implying that the bilateral Chinese-South Korean relationship could suffer, or that there could be economic ramifications if Seoul were to allow deployment of THAAD,” Mr. Klingner said in a recent interview with The Washington Times.

He said Chinese authorities also likely believe that Washington seeks to position a THAAD system in South Korea as a deterrent to Pyongyang and to constrain China’s intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.

But the reality, Mr. Klingner said, is that the system’s technical design would limit its effectiveness against such capabilities.

“Chinese criticism of THAAD is not based on any legitimate security concerns,” he said. “The Chinese security concerns are red herrings. What China is really trying to do is divide the U.S. and its allies from upgrading their security capabilities in the region.

China perceives anything related to U.S. military development in the Pacific as a dagger aimed at the heart of China,” he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill told The Times that the Chinese “won’t like it, but they will get over” the prospect of THAAD deployment to South Korea because “we’ve told them about it for years.”

“The Chinese need to understand that we have treaty obligations to South Korea and Japan,” Mr. Hill said. “I think the Chinese can certainly be made to understand that … if we fail to deploy our best missile defenses, sooner or later we will undermine our commitment to our allies.”

At the same time, he said, THAAD deployment should be seen as one element of a “broader strategy” that must involve a serious push for closer diplomatic transparency between the U.S. and Beijing when it comes to the North Korea threat and security in the region as a whole.

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