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North Korea

'North Korea times rocket launch for maximum impact'

Pyongyang's announcement that it will once again attempt to test a long-range rocket has created tension with Seoul and other governments. The timing is no coincidence, Korea expert Eric Ballbach believes.

DW: Eight months after a failed rocket test, North Korea appears ready to make another attempt. State television announced over the weekend that the country was within a few weeks of again trying to put an observation satellite into space. Was it a surprising announcement or should it have been expected all along?

Eric Ballbach: This announcement is certainly not surprising. It must always be seen in the context of history and the political context. The rocket test that has been announced is part of a larger and more comprehensive program and was to be expected - particularly in light of the last test, which failed.

In the past, we have seen that North Korea regularly employs such measures ahead of important political events - not only those in East Asia as with the upcoming elections in South Korea but also, repeatedly, in connection with important political events in the United States. In this regard, it is no surprise at all.

The time frame for the planned rocket launch is, of course, no coincidence. In addition to the presidential election in South Korea on December 19, the anniversary of the death of former dictator Kim Jong Il will be on December 17. In one of the first reactions to the latest provocation from North Korea, South Korea's foreign minister said that a launch would be met with a response. What would you expect that to be?

I doubt that there will be any sustained political or even military reaction on the part of the South. Of course, the situation will still be monitored very closely by Seoul and political conclusions will be drawn about the North's behavior. From the perspective of South Korea, this does of course constitute a provocation. In this regard, it is only natural that the North's behavior will prompt a political reaction from Seoul. How that will manifest itself, however, remains to be seen, because the South Korean government does not have a lot of leeway where this is concerned. The sanctions against North Korea are already very harsh.

Eric J. Ballbach

Eric J. Ballbach

Economic cooperation with the North has already been suspended after the Cheonan incident [the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010, for which the North has been deemed responsible], with the exception of the shared Kaesong industrial zone. In this respect, it remains to be seen if there will be any reaction from the South and whether or not, under the circumstances, the future of this one remaining shared project might even be placed in doubt.

Do you see any risk of an escalation on the Korean peninsula?

I don't see any danger of a military escalation at this moment, because both the North and South are very mindful of their own domestic political developments. In the South, there is the upcoming presidential election. In the North, it will soon be the first anniversary of the death of former dictator Kim Jong Il and, in this regard, Kim Jong Un is in the process of consolidating power. I doubt that an actual military confrontation would de beneficial. Of course, small provocations on the part of the North are a part of this consolidation of power but, at the moment, I cannot foresee a great risk of escalation.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has accused Pyongyang of using the rocket test to try to affect the presidential election in South Korea. To what extent might it do that?

I would also have my reservations about that, because both presidential candidates - the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, as well as her liberal challenger, Moon Jae-in - have already said that they want to soften their stance towards the North. Of course, there are groups with political influence in the South that will try to use the latest provocations from the North to their own political ends. However, it must be taken into account that the South Korean population has the fundamental say and that it will ultimately be the people that decide what direction the politics of the South will take, including its stance on North Korea. We will just have to wait and see how the South Korean population sees it; whether North Korea actually plays a role in deciding the election result, or whether economic factors will it will primarily be economic factors that prevail in influencing the outcome.

The critical reaction from other countries to the North Korean announcement came swiftly and was unambiguous. What consequences does North Korea actually face if it goes ahead with the rocket test?

It remains to be seen whether or not there will be UN sanctions and a UN Security Council resolutions, as, for example, was the case after both of the atomic tests were carried out by North Korea. Another possibility would be stricter sanctions at a bilateral level - meaning that countries such as the US and Japan, for example, might further tighten sanctions. The long-term efficacy of this must be in doubt, as North Korea has been subject to a constant catalogue of sanctions since the 1950s and has therefore learned how to get by under these conditions. What's more is that North Korea is a country is quite able to use the concept of creating a bogeyman, and it does so - for example the national ideology as far as domestic politics is concerned - in such a way that one might be so bold as to put forward the hypothesis that North Korea does, in fact, need its enemies.

Eric Ballbach is a research assistant for the Korean Studies Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin.

DW.DE