Spotlight back on North Korea
By Andrew Demaria
(CNN) -- The discovery of Scud missiles on a ship from North Korea apparently bound for the Middle East Yemen could not have come at a worse time for Pyongyang and has left analysts scratching their heads at the communist nation's behavior.
Following a suspension of missile talks with Washington late 2000, relations between North Korea and the United States have soured, with President George W. Bush branding the North part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq in January this year.
Adding to increasing tensions was Pyongyang's shock revelation in October that it had actively been pursuing a nuclear weapons program in defiance of a 1994 deal with the then-Clinton administration.
The admission led to heavy fuel oil deliveries to the Stalinist state being halted and a cutback on humanitarian food offerings, desperately needed to combat a worsening famine in North Korea.
Labeled last week by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week as the "single biggest proliferator of ballistic missiles" and "a danger to the world," the Scud missile discovery in the Indian Ocean has turned the spotlight back on North Korea and threatens to add to the political explosiveness on the Korean Peninsula.
"It looks like what the North was attempting to do was heighten some of the urgency in terms of their situation," Ray Jovanovich, political analyst at Credit Agricole Asset Management, told CNN.
"But it could not have come at a more difficult time given the U.N. weapons inspectors are back in Iraq. It causes a great deal of concern for the greater Asian picture, but particularly on the Korean Peninsula."
The motive behind the missile shipment is unclear, but observers say the Scud discovery is surprising even though North Korea is in desperate need of hard currency for food and military components.
It is particularly surprising, analysts say, given the heavy surveillance North Korea is under from the U.S.
"I cannot really understand the North Korean behavior in exporting missiles to Yemen even though it is known that there has been some kind of secret agreement between Yemen and North Korea in the supply of missile technology and missiles," Moon Chung-in, Professor of Political Science at Tokyo's Yonsei University, told CNN.
Unlike the Iraqi crisis, where the Bush administration has threatened the use of force unless Baghdad gives up its alleged weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. has preferred to take a softer diplomatic approach to dealing with its laundry list of issues against North Korea, in consultation with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
This latest discovery, however, may lead to calls for Washington to take its gloves off when dealing with Pyongyang, though war was too premature a conclusion should diplomacy fail, observers say.
"Obviously the diplomatic pressures will be stepped up now. There will be I think a greater confrontation in terms of dealing with North Korea," Jovanovich said.
Criticism of double standards from the United States over Iraq and North Korea is likely to be easily deflected, analysts say.
Although the United States has said that North Korea may possess or be intent on developing weapons of mass destruction, there is no evidence that Pyongyang will use them, Jovanovich said.
North Korea also argues that it has the right to have WMDs and ballistic missiles to counter what it views as the threat of aggression from the United States and South Korea.
"It's very different comparing the regime in Iraq to that in Korea," Jovanovich told CNN.
There are also domestic implications for South Korea which chooses a new president next week to replace Kim Dae-jung.
Ruling party candidate, Roh Moo-hyun, has advertised a policy of patience and discussion with North Korea, essentially extending Kim's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with Pyongyang.
The missile discovery is likely to favor Lee Hoi-chang of the main opposition Grand National Party. Unlike Roh, Lee denounces the 'Sunshine Policy' saying it gives the North too much for too little.
Lee has called for a halt to any financial aid to the communist state until it abandons its nuclear ambitions.