The International Herald Tribune has a good roundup of the diplomatic manueverings surrounding the North Korean missile threat, building from the report that former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has scrapped plans to visit the North next week. Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il held a summit in 2000, for which Kim Dae Jong earned the Nobel Peace Prize.
The planned trip had raised hopes that Kim Dae Jung might be able to persuade the North Korean leader to ease Pyongyang's standoff with Washington. The two Kims held an unprecedented inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000.
South Koreans generally view the North less as a threat for its weapons and missiles than for its utter poverty and potential for collapse. The South has invested much wealth and energy into helping the North develop economically, as indicated by this report in Time and this one in the Washington Post. It would explain the efforts by some in the South to downplay the North Korean missile launch, even when their former President, by his actions, suggests the threat is real.
The IHT continues:
But Han Song Ryol, North Korea's deputy chief of mission at the United Nations in New York, told the Yonhap news agency of South Korea that the North "as a sovereign country has the right to export missiles, as well as the right to develop, deploy and test them."
"We know that the U.S. is concerned about our missile test launch," Han was quoted as saying. "So our position is, why don't we try to resolve this problem through negotiations?"
"Talks" are currently understood to be the central problem. The North has claimed that their "self-imposed" moratorium on missile testing only applied during face-to-face talks with the U.S. The U.S. has expended much effort to get North Korea to engage in six-party talks -- they in fact are the only talks that the U.S. is willing to agree to -- but the North has been boycotting them since last November.
However, there are other potential reasons for the launch, none of them good and none of them answerable by diplomacy. I discussed the possibility that the launch was less bluster than advertisement here [UPDATE: a report detailing the North's missile inventory], and in this post offer excerpts of an interview with a true expert on North Korea, Gordon C. Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown : North Korea Takes On the World. Mr. Chang believes the launch is motiviated by North Korea's internal politics. Of course the final possibilty, and the one that ought to be of enough concern to do away with any silly partisan blather about the Bush administration, is that the North means to test our resolve and do us grave harm.
The South is engaged in a complex balancing act and government officials have expressed conflicting ideas about the North's behavior. At times, they seem determined to interpret the missile threat as a mere negotiation tactic:
Scrutinizing the North Korean overture, officials and analysts in Seoul said that North Korea, having won enough world attention, may now be seeking a face-saving way of winding down preparations for a missile launching. But the analysts also said that the North may be trying to shift the blame for an imminent missile launching to Washington.
At other times, they are skeptical that there is any threat at all. From the Washington Post:
In Seoul, a South Korean official said his government is skeptical of U.S. intelligence indicating that North Korea is preparing to launch a new, larger version of the Taepodong-2 missile capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States. He said his government is not particularly alarmed by the situation and "doesn't understand why there is such fuss in other countries on this."
He also said it is too early to tell if the North Koreans are trying to launch a satellite or test a missile.
And at times, they express determination to pressure the North without offering them any concessions. Again from the IHT:
In Seoul, where the government faces growing political pressure to act more aggressively, the unification minister, Lee Jong Seok, told opposition lawmakers that a missile launching would force South Korea to decrease rice and fertilizer aid to the impoverished North.
There is still some dispute over whether the missile has actually been fueled:
South Korean and U.S. officials say that intelligence reports indicate North Korea has assembled a multistage rocket system at its Musudan-Ri launching pad, but they are not sure if it has been completely fueled.
The IHT ends with a prosaic paragraph that nonetheless expresses the current state of our understanding quite effectively:
Outside analysts pore over North Korean pronouncements to decipher the secretive regime's true intentions. Their interpretations often vary widely.
It is currently 12:10 am in North Korea, and the forecast for tomorrow is for scattered clouds.