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07:20 6 April 2012

FOCUS: Japan, S. Korea at odds with China over N. Korea's rocket launch

By Ko Hirano
BEIJING, April 6, Kyodo

Rising tensions in the wake of North Korea's announcement it plans to launch a rocket next week are likely to dominate the agenda when foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea meet Sunday in the eastern China city of Ningbo.

The three countries are expected to agree to call for restraint by North Korea up to the last minute, while ensuring coordination with other countries if the launch goes forward -- keeping in mind how U.N. Security Council condemnation of North Korea's last launch in 2009 prompted the country to pull out of the six-nation talks on its denuclearization and conduct a nuclear test.

But analysts speculate Japan and South Korea will be at odds with China over how to deal with North Korea in the event of another rocket launch, given Beijing's reluctance to join other countries in seeking to punish Pyongyang at the Security Council.

North Korea appears determined to go ahead with the launch of what it says is an earth-observation satellite on a carrier rocket between April 12 and 16.

In Sunday's trilateral talks, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea are expected to urge China -- a major benefactor of North Korea -- to make increased efforts to prevent that from happening.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Wu Dawei, China's special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, in Beijing on March 29, Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, said Japan will continue to strongly urge North Korea to exercise self-restraint.

He asked China to take similar action.

But Sugiyama declined to say whether China thinks North Korea's planned rocket launch would violate Security Council resolutions related to the country, including Resolution 1874, which bans North Korea from conducting ''any'' launch using ballistic missile technology.

Chinese scholars say that while the Chinese government is well aware that North Korea's launch would violate the resolution, it would not say so in public so as not to provoke Pyongyang.

''China believes that if North Korea launches a satellite for whatever reasons, it is in violation of the Security Council Resolution 1874,'' said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

''We have worries or concern,'' Shi told Kyodo News. ''But we are not like the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia to publicly declare that North Korea is in violation of the Security Council resolution.''

Citing ''warmer ties'' between China and North Korea since 2009 and Beijing's resistance to moves that may threaten stability in Pyongyang, Shi doubts China would agree to calls for condemnation and tighter sanctions against North Korea if the United States, Japan, South Korea and other countries referred the case to the U.N. Security Council.

Experts say China's influence over North Korea is limited, especially over the launch plan that apparently stems from the North's domestic factors such as a show of national strength and progress in science and technology as well as celebration of the centennial on April 15 of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung and of the establishment of the leadership of new leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea claims the planned satellite launch is meant for peaceful development and use of space, calling that a universally recognized legitimate right of a sovereign state. But the United States, Japan and South Korea suspect it to be a disguised long-range ballistic missile test.

Military experts say similar technology can be applied to ballistic missiles, which could provide a delivery system for a nuclear weapon should North Korea become able to miniaturize one for use on a warhead.

''Kim Jong Un has domestic requirements (for the planned launch). You have to understand it,'' Shi said. ''Otherwise it is so difficult to interpret what happened in just two weeks'' after North Korea struck a food aid-for-nuclear freeze deal with the United States in late February.

Washington argues the launch would jeopardize the deal, under which Pyongyang will implement moratoriums on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment in exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid.

The Choson Sinbo, the newspaper of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, suggested in an article published Wednesday that North Korea may carry out a third nuclear test depending on the international community's response to its satellite launch.

==Kyodo

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