Engage not isolate

North Korea’s successful test o f the Unha-3 rocket has set alarm bells ringing. While Pyongyang insists that the rocket launch was to put its own satellite in space, there is little separating technology behind a rocket from that of a missile.

A missile is essentially a rocket carrying a warhead. Hence, Pyongyang’s assertion that this rocket launch is part of its space programme has failed to calm fears. After all, it has in the past boast of its ambitions to use its nuclear and missile programme to strike at ‘aggressors.’ Eight months ago, when a North Korean rocket crashed seconds after launch, many countries stifled a snigger. Tuesday’s successful test will force them to take North Korea’s missile capability more seriously. The test takes Pyongyang closer to its ambitions of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. It will have Washington seriously worried. Although North Korea has nuclear weapons, its scientists are not yet able to make nuclear warheads for missiles. Still, given the pace at which its nuclear and missile programmes have advanced in recent years, many fear that it is a matter of time before it will develop such warheads.

The latest tests violate a UN Resolution forbidding North Korea from using ballistic missile technology. While the US is expected to push the UN Security Council to expand existing sanctions, whether China would agree to tough action against an ally remains to be seen. Hitherto, the UNSC has acted sternly in response to nuclear tests, not missile launches, by Pyongyang. Should it expand sanctions now, it will be raising the bar.  
Decades of crushing sanctions have not persuaded North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programmes. Why then should more sanctions be successful?

It is time the international community abandon the sanctions strategy. The UNSC needs to explore other options that will make the regime feel less isolated. The best way to create a stable and secure North Korea is to engage with it. The problem is that American strategy towards North Korea involves rhetoric about talks even as it does everything to deepen Pyongyang’s insecurities.  Tuesday’s successful rocket test was described by the US as a ‘provocative act’. The recent US-South Korea military exercises held less than 50 km from the North Korean border where use of the North Korean flag was made in live fire drills were no less provocative.

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