SEOUL–International leaders strongly rebuked North Korea on Sunday for a long-range rocket launch they characterized as a covert ballistic missile test. But observers said they would likely face an uphill battle in coordinating global action to punish Pyongyang and effectively deter future missile tests.
South Korea, the United States and Japan requested a special meeting of the UN Security Council following the launch into space of what North Korean state media said was an observation satellite.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye described the launch as an “intolerable provocation,” while US Secretary of State John Kerry said the move threatened security on the Korean Peninsula.
The 15 member states of the Security Council were due to convene in New York on Sunday morning, local time, to discuss its response to the rocket firing, which breached UN sanctions designed to stop North Korea acquiring ballistic missiles that could one day carry nuclear warheads.
But it was unclear if the body would be able to reach a consensus on strong punitive action because of China’s reluctance to bring North Korea to heel. Beijing, which is Pyongyang’s main economic and diplomatic patron, holds a veto on the Security Council as one of its five permanent members.
“China will not agree to the type of punitive measures the US and Republic of Korea (South Korea) would like to see,” Daniel Pinkston, former North East Asia Project deputy director at the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times.
“China will express some degree of dissatisfaction, and maybe impose some costs, but basically avoid the issue as much as possible, and then directly or indirectly blame the US,” he added.
While tepid in comparison to the reactions in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, Beijing nonetheless expressed “regret” over the launch, which followed a nuclear weapons test last month and a similar long-range rocket firing in 2012.
Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokeswoman, called for “all relevant parties to deal with the situation calmly,” proposing “dialogue and consultations” to resolve tensions.
On Friday, Beijing signaled its unease with moves by the international community to slap tougher sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear detonation on Jan. 6, suggesting that it may be unwilling to cooperate on further action against the latest rocket launch.
The Security Council has struggled to formulate a response to Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test, with the US and China reportedly divided on further sanctions against the isolated country. While the Security Council managed to hammer together a package of sanctions in response to North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test in a little over three weeks, it has so far failed to answer the latest detonation more than a month after it was carried out.
China has sometimes objected to North Korean brinkmanship, most recently sending an envoy to Pyongyang in an abortive attempt to talk its ally down from its rocket launch, but ultimately shied away from tough action it fears could destabilize the regime.
“There are no easy sanctions remaining,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
“China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea, but they don’t want to push North Korea to the point of economic or political collapse.”
Hanham said she expected the Security Council would manage to agree on some kind of response but it would not be very meaningful.
Even if the global community formed a united front with tough measures, it is not clear it would be enough to get Pyongyang to change course. Since 2006, four Security Council resolutions have failed to halt the development of missile or nuclear weapons by the regime, which follows a Songun, or “military first,” policy.
Pinkston said that the world would never be able to convince or coerce Pyongyang into ditching its weapons programs without fundamental change within the regime.
“(The) only things that would be effective are force or war, or revolutionary change within Songun Korea that resulted in the abandonment of Songun ideology and the ‘Byungjin Line,’ ” said Pinkston, referring to leader Kim Jong-un’s call for nuclear weapons to be developed in tandem with the economy.
It was not immediately clear whether Pyongyang’s latest rocket, named Kwangmyongsong-4, successfully launched a satellite as claimed. US Strategic Command, a division of the Department of Defense, said it had detected two objects in orbit. David Wright, a missiles expert, told CNN that the objects appeared to be a satellite and the third stage of the rocket booster.
Pyongyang’s previous long-range rocket launch in 2012 is believed to have placed a satellite into orbit, although there are doubts about whether it actually works. A raft of UN resolutions ban North Korea from pursuing what it claims is a peaceful space program because the technology is applicable to offensive ballistic missiles.
North Korea’s longest range missile is thought to be capable of traveling some 9,000 km, theoretically bringing Alaska within range of a strike. Much of the international community believes that Pyongyang ultimately hopes to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, although it is not thought to have yet mastered the technology.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.