Philippine sovereignty and North Korea

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

North Korea announced plans to launch rockets into space, to happen sometime between yesterday and this Monday. The US, Japan, and South Korea demanded a stop to such launch, making it clear that such act will be considered an unnecessary provocation in an already tense situation. North Korea, on the other hand, insists that what it will release is merely a satellite and for which as a “sovereign nation” it is fully entitled to do. For such an isolated country, North Korea now finds itself the center of attention. Which is what it probably wanted anyway.

This is not the first time that Pyongyang is firing rockets into space despite international disapproval. In 2009, in the face of UN Security Council condemnation, North Korea unleashed a rocket, walked out on nuclear disarmament talks, and then dispatched a second rocket. This is a country whose government simply gets a kick at mocking the international community.

For their part, South Korea declared that it will shoot down any North Korean rocket entering its territory. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was vehement in ordering that any North Korean rocket violating Japanese territory be shot down, and readied their Patriot missiles, as well as destroyers carrying interceptors. US President Barack Obama bluntly told North Korea to stop their nonsense and that any such launch would be dealt with “sternly,” including the withholding of US food aid. All this international trouble just because North Korea sees nothing wrong with firing rockets merely to celebrate the 100th birthday of its former (and late) president Kim Il-Sung.

The Philippines has weighed in on the issue. Last April 4, President Noynoy Aquino declared that North Korea’s actions violate UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario was more trenchant, expressing the Philippines’ “grave concern over the announced plan of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to launch a satellite” and “strongly suggested that other ASEAN member states urge the DPRK not to proceed with its planned launch.”

But the direct and immediate problem for the Philippines is that North Korea’s rocket (or its debris) may enter Philippine territory, somewhere between Aparri and Quezon province. Thus, Undersecretary Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council announced that a “no-fly zone, no-sail zone, and no-fishing zone” shall be enforced in the east Philippine area. Dr. Alumanda de la Rosa of the Department of Science and Technology nevertheless assured people that North Korea’s rocket “does not carry any nuclear warhead.” Still, having said that, Dr. de la Rosa adds, “in the event of a suspected radiation report, NDRRMC, with the recommendation of PNRI, will reactivate the country’s radiological plan.” The probable size of expected fallout, by the way, is said to be as large as a bus.

However, while absolutely commending our foreign affairs, security, and science officials for their preparations, may I bring up one particular point seemingly missed: if indeed North Korea proceeds with its launch and if indeed its rocket (or parts thereof) enter Philippine territory, then perhaps somebody should raise the singular fact that the North Korean government is deliberately and heedlessly violating Philippine territory and, thus, our sovereignty. While it’s fine to bring up the issue of Security Council resolutions probably being breached and that regional stability may be impaired, what is truly important as far as Filipinos are concerned is the fact that our rights, under the UN Charter and under customary international law, may be violated. We shouldn’t merely be concerned, we should be outraged.

Consider this: we are in our land and yet it is we who have to adjust our way of living just because some foreign jerk decides to celebrate some dead guy’s birthday by firing rockets in the air? While it is proper for our police and local officials to say they will apprehend fishermen that insists in fishing in the endangered areas, still something must be done to compensate them for their loss of income. And that includes all the tourism, agriculture, shipping, industry, and the like that will be stopped just because of this launch. Incidentally, it’s quite telling that those local activist lawyers who normally shriek at any alleged Philippine infringement of international rules are now quiet at this clear violation of Philippine rights.

We have to exercise our sovereignty. Or lose it. While we may not have the military capabilities to protect ourselves from North Korea’s rockets, we nevertheless (presumably) still have our wits. We must find a way to enforce compensation or restitution from North Korea, if not through the Security Council or some other mechanism, then through countermeasures that will enable satisfaction for the Philippines. An apology from North Korea, at the very least, should those rockets enter Philippine territory, must be had.

We should not act the victims here and neither should our citizens suffer because we clearly are in the right.