Missile Tests Challenge South Korean Policy

South Korea, which has pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea, has been unsettled by Pyongyang's flurry of missile testing this week.

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North Korea says it is testing missiles in self-defense. And despite international protest, it's promising more testing as well as what it called stronger physical actions.

The missiles fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan this week, but news of their launch smashed directly into South Korea's effort to engage its neighbor. Here's NPR's Louisa Lim.

(Soundbite of South Korean television news reporter)

LOUISA LIM reporting:

North Korea's missile tests led the news in South Korea and across the world. The reclusive Stalinists say brinkmanship is reaching new heights with a volley of missiles, and that's been followed with more verbal bravado.

Peter Beck, from the International Crisis Group, says the message is clear.

Mr. PETER BECK (Northeast Asia Project Director, International Crisis Group): It's really a statement of defiance, and it may be as much for domestic audience as it is for the world; to rally the people, that they are not going to collapse and they are not going to capitulate like Libya, and if - unless they're treated with more respect, then we can expect more of the same.

LIM: The missile launch, as one paper here puts it, is a slap in the face for South Korea's government, which has a policy of engaging with its Stalinist northern neighbor. It sent large quantities of food aid and fertilizer, as well as pushing forward major economic cooperation projects.

The government says patient dialogue is now needed, but South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister, Seo Joo-seok(ph), told NPR there will be some changes, albeit minor ones.

Mr. SEO JOO-SEOK (Deputy Foreign Minister, South Korea): We are reviewing overall picture of inter-Korean relations, including various aid programs toward North Korea. So there might be some sanctions.

Professor JUNG HOON-LEE (Yonsei University): It's a very weak response to what it is a very blatant challenge.

LIM: Jung Hoon-Lee, from Yonsei University. He says the firing of missiles has crystallized public dissatisfaction with South Korea's policy towards the north.

Prof. HOON-LEE: This is a very dangerous country, and the threat factor has not in any way been reduced through the years of engagement, so it hasn't really worked. And I think people are coming to that realization.

LIM: China is also in a quandary. Today, it expressed grave concern and called for diplomatic efforts to reduce the tensions. But its previous attempts to stop any tests have been very publicly ignored.

Nonetheless, as North Korea's closest ally, it's likely to act to protect its neighbor from punitive action by the United Nations Security Council.

Professor RUEDIGER FRANK (Professor of East Asia Political Economy, University of Vienna): I don't think China will be ready to apply heavy sanctions on North Korea. And therefore, whatever the Americans and the Japanese do will be just inefficient.

LIM: Ruediger Frank, from the University of Vienna.

Japan and the U.S. have taken a tougher line against Pyongyang, calling for sanctions. But he says, in any case, sanctions against North Korea wouldn't be effective.

Prof. FRANK: That naturally hits weaker members of society first, and it would hit the elite last, because, naturally, they have most power. They have better chances to acquire food and all other necessities. And also, I do not believe that sanctions will hit the military in the first place, because the military is a top priority for the North Korean government.

Unidentified Woman: Korea has too strong (unintelligible).

LIM: Students here in Seoul discussing the threat from North Korea, a sign that it's permeating the public consciousness in a place long inured to the unpredictability of its northern neighbor.

Some of South Korea's newspapers are reporting that the North already has three or four more missiles on the launch pad ready for firing. So far, the missile launches have succeeded in uniting the international community in opposition to Pyongyang, but not on how to proceed next in this dangerous crisis.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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