South Korea has decided not to make public the results of its ongoing operation to retrieve debris from North Korea’s failed rocket launch that has brought humiliation to new leader Kim Jong-un, multiple sources said Sunday. They said that Seoul remains cautious on revealing the details of its hunt for rocket debris to avoid provoking Pyongyang which warned early this month of “ruthless’ retaliation against any attempt to recover components of its rocket.
“We will refrain from disclosing any information about the recovery of rocket parts,” a spokesman of the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said. “Many are skeptical about pouring tens of millions of dollars into a search mission that may end up as a failure and would only escalate tensions between the two Koreas.”
He noted that the rocket broke into some 20 pieces and scattered across a wide area in the West Sea.
The spokesman added that though the debris fell in international waters, the Navy will not allow North Korean ships to partake in recovery efforts as the area is among the South’s Approved Areas of Operation (AAO).
A senior Navy official confirmed that the MND decided not to brief the press about the rocket debris retrieval, saying the North may use the South Korean military’s recovery activities as an excuse for further provocations. MND officials had expressed confidence that they would successfully track the locations of the debris that fell into the waters some 100 to 150 kilometers off the country’s west coast on Friday morning. They said the recovery would help Seoul understand the cause of the North’s failure to put a satellite into orbit, adding that they began analyzing floating material the Navy found.
However, Lee Seok-woo, a law professor at Inha University, said that Seoul would be wise to allow North Korean vessels to recover debris in the international waters to prevent a further escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“The rights for rocket debris in international waters are given on a first-come, first-serve basis,” he said. “A military conflict may occur if both Koreas demand exclusive rights for the broken parts.”
Kim Yong-hwan, an international law expert at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, agreed, adding that Seoul is obliged to return recovered parts to the North if the latter agrees to pay the costs of the retrieval work.
Kim Suk-hyun, a law professor at Dankook University, disagreed, saying the South has no responsibility for the return of the debris as the North’s rocket launch was in clear violation of international laws.
“If a man carries an illegal weapon, confiscation of it can be justified,” he said.
Observers say Seoul and Washington are unlikely to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang’s rocket launch, which many believe was cover for a long-range missile test, due mainly to Beijing’s fears of a possible nuclear test by the North.
“Under international law, the North has no right to stop the South from recovering debris for environmental or safety reasons,” he said.
“But Seoul will need to return it to the Stalinist country if the latter demands.”
The U.N. Security Council said it “deplored” the North’s’ rocket launch on Friday after convening an emergency meeting of its 15 council members, but stopped short of imposing any new sanctions against the reclusive regime.