NK Blows Off Leap Day Deal With Missile Ploy, by Chris Nelson

Test firing of an Unha-2 missile (photo by KCNA)

[Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report gathered a number of reactions from North Korea experts on what seems to be an about-face by the DPRK on an agreement made 29 February 2012 for a moratorium on missile tests. What exactly happened here? There are a number of theories with disturbing implications. Has the young Kim Jong Un just made his first mistake in international relations? Is this the result of two factions in the ruling elite working at cross-purposes? Was the fledgling leader unclear that a satellite launch bears a striking resemblance to a ballistic missile test? What will this mean for US AID food assistance deal. If the food part of the Leap Day deal is scuttled as a result of the satellite launch announcement, can the US Administration continue to claim that humanitarian assistance is unrelated to strategic and military issues? These and other questions are mulled over by a group of Chris Nelson’s “loyal readers” in Friday’s Nelson Report (16 March 2012), reprinted here by permission. –CanKor]

In barely 24 hours, the situation with N. Korea has gone from skeptical but hopeful to downright furious…and deeply worried a crisis confrontation is coming soon.

The Obama Administration denounced the move as “highly provocative…in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolutions…poses a threat to regional security and would also be inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.”

The sense of crisis deepened as informed sources learned of the “back story” leading up to Pyongyang’s declaration last night it planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth with a satellite launch on April 15…a missile launch in clear, explicit violation of existing UN resolutions supported by China and the other 6 Party Talks participants.

Here’s the situation as of this writing, roughly 5:00 pm, DC time:

  1. the State Dept. has officially declared all aspects of the Feb. 29 agreement with the DPRK, including the implicitly linked humanitarian food assistance, to be “on hold” pending a decision by Pyongyang to reverse its decision…it was flatly stated in precisely those terms by spokesperson Nuland;
  2. Chinese officials have told American counterparts that from their frantic, private efforts to block the announcement, when warned by Pyongyang three days ago, Beijing now concludes there is no chance the DPRK ruling regime will back-down as demanded by the US;
  3. Further, Chinese officials say in their analysis the decision to announce the launch, despite existing UN resolutions (and the assumption it could scuttle the Feb. 29 agreement) reflects continued internal disagreement in the Pyongyang leadership…that is, the launch announcement stems from “internal sources” and not “external factors”, such as consideration of the views of Beijing, Washington, or Moscow, the Chinese report;
  4. Experienced US negotiators agree with the Chinese assessment, one telling us “there is no historical record of the DPRK backing-down under what it considers a threat or ultimatum from us on something like this, especially as this one concerns the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung…they simply won’t change their mind, having ‘gone public’ they can’t”;
  5. Directly involved sources say in the process of negotiating the Feb. 29 agreement, Special Envoy Amb. Glyn Davies, and Ford Hart, explicitly, directly warned DPRK lead-negotiator Kim Gye-gwan that any missile test, for any purpose, would violate the terms of the agreement under negotiation, and that it would be a direct violation of existing UN resolutions currently in force…and State spokesperson Nuland this afternoon publicly confirmed the Davies/Ford warnings, in detail;
  6. Further, Nuland said that when the DPRK’s “New York connection” called last night a heads-up of the announcement coming soon, the State Dept. official taking the call reiterated that such a launch would directly violate the “Leap Day Agreement”, as Feb. 29 is called within the building;
  7. The official, but private USG assessment of the dilemma now posed is that the DPRK Leadership is asking a clear and provocative question to President Obama: “How badly do you want a nuclear and missile test moratorium with us, since the price is you must accept us as a nuclear weapons power for the next 10-20 years?”, and…
  8. “Do you want the terms of the Feb. 29 deal so badly you will accept our claim that a satellite missile launch is not the same thing as an ICMB launch?”…a repeat of the international debate over the DPRK’s 2009 “satellite” launch, even though the UN sanctions resolutions (see the discussion below) clearly reject any such argument;
  9. So what’s the net security assessment for now, as we wait for the next announcements and/or actions from Pyongyang? Deep concern that if the “charm offensive” which led to Feb. 29 becomes an official casualty of the missile announcement, an action/reaction syndrome may kick-in which could literally destabilize the region;
  10. For example…given the DPRK pattern of always arguing that steps deemed a “provocation” by the US and ROK are, in fact, a legitimate response to US and ROK “hostility”, upcoming West Sea joint USN-ROKN exercises now pose a “challenge” the DPRK likely will not resist…although the form of the response is of course unpredictable, especially given US-ROK threats of joint military retaliation following the events of 2010;
  11. Summing up, a US negotiator says that through the “New York Connection”, the DPRK has “already been warned that while they may see this as a challenge to Obama, the reality is we are all moving into very dangerous territory.”

Additional thoughts…in Track 2 discussions in N.Y. last week, DPRK officials seemed to have a sophisticated appreciation of the domestic political realities operating for President Obama through the November election, and they sought to express understanding of why Obama could not take certain steps Pyongyang desired to “lower US hostility” until after the election.

So given the Chinese report, noted above, the question arises whether DPRK leadership opponents of any dealing with the US are now in the ascendancy? Or, did the new leadership team calculate that Obama was so desirous of the Feb. 29 deal as “proof” of his foreign policy prowess, that he would cave-in to DPRK claims it can test a missile under current circumstances?

“Either way, they have grossly miscalculated, and have given the President a golden opportunity to demonstrate his seriousness, his toughness, and his steadfastness under pressure,” a close adviser to the Administration privately comments, adding, “just imagine the Romney press release should the White House seem to blink on this one!”

And what of the threat assessment toward South Korea? On balance, many informed observers have felt the DPRK sees current domestic political trends in the ROK as leaning toward a more open approach, even if Ms. Park is elected president in December, and the current ruling party of Lee Myung-bak retains the Blue House.

Consequently, those analysts have argued that a “military provocation” against the ROK this year is unlikely.

Unless, that is, the DPRK feels that domestic criticism of President Lee is such that voters would blame him for DPRK actions that Pyongyang and its apologists would claim was “forced” by “Lee hostility”…and as of today, Pyongyang presumably would claim the US also is to blame.

From many private emails over the years, we can confirm that such arguments have frequently been raised by some US supporters of a more open, less strict policy toward the DPRK, however much they seem to turn the logic of cause and effect on its head.

Bruce Klinger, Heritage Foundation

And then there’s also this, noted in Loyal Reader Bruce Klingner’s posting for Heritage:

“There is also the potential for another North Korean nuclear test in coming months. In 2009, Pyongyang used the UN condemnation of its missile launch to justify its nuclear test one month later. North Korea may be eager to demonstrate its capability to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons to augment its existing arsenal of an estimated 6-8 plutonium-based nuclear weapons. In late 2010, North Korea revealed a previously covert uranium enrichment facility to a visiting US scientist who was stunned by the scope and sophistication of 2,000 uranium centrifuges.”

Stephan Haggard, University California, San Diego

Steph Haggard of UCSD adds:

“Let me just focus on one additional dilemma this raises for US policy: the food component of the package. The US has repeatedly said that the food aid is not linked to the deal. Well, this will now be tested in spades. Is the US going to continue to ship food post-launch? Or will it acknowledge that they are linked? Or will it simply cite the North Koreans and say “we’re sorry, they linked them!” This will not be easy. I have always thought that the need is serious and real, so on humanitarian grounds there is no reason to change that assessment. But sadly, the food aid component will be attacked.

“As always with the North Koreans, it is not about the facts; it is what to do about them. All of the political optics argue for shutting down the deal; the Republicans will have a field day with the administration if it goes ahead. But the alternative might be a different form of ‘strategic patience’: that is to say, institute our own ‘freeze on the freeze,’ but with the ever-stated willingness to come back to the table when the North Koreans get serious.”

Mark Fitzpatrick, International Institute for Strategic Studies

And Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS checks in from London:

“Space launches differ from ballistic-missile tests in their purpose and trajectory. Where space launches only need to go up, ballistic missiles must also come down, to securely deliver their payload, and need to survive atmospheric re-entry. The 2011 IISS Strategic Dossier on North Korean Security Challenges describes the differences in detail (p. 155). But because satellite-launch rockets and ballistic missiles share the same bodies, engines, launch sites and other development processes, they are intricately linked. The satellite launch also provides missile-development information regarding propulsion, guidance and operational aspects.

“That is why most nations insisted that the Unha-2 test violated the ban under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 on ‘all activities related to [North Korea’s] ballistic missile programme’. When the Security Council mildly rebuked North Korea for that test, Pyongyang’s response was to abrogate all past agreements and to conduct a second nuclear test.

“It is easy to see events now playing out as they did three years ago. The 15 April test launch will undoubtedly provoke a similar rebuke. Given the symbolism of the satellite launch on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, that rebuke will not be worn lightly. It would not be too surprising if Pyongyang then abrogated the Leap Day deal and set off another nuclear explosion.

“When the North Korean leadership approved the Leap Day deal they must have known that a satellite launch was planned. Some may therefore conclude that the deal was a ruse, and that North Korea has no real intention to settle differences. But that is too hasty a conclusion. The contradictory messages sent by the 29 February deal and the 16 March satellite-launch announcement could also indicate policy splits in the new leadership arrangement. If the satellite-launch announcement had come a day earlier, we might even call it the Ides of March stabbing.”

Richard Bush, Brookings Institution

And this, from Brookings’ Richard Bush former NIO for E. Asia at the CIA:

“Today, three months after the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea announced that it planned to launch a satellite in mid-April, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Song, the founder of the North Korean state. Pyongyang will claim that it has every right under international law to launch a satellite, but that assertion conveniently ignores both that it is barred by UN Security Council resolutions from conducting launches using ballistic missile technology and and that it pledged on February 29th to institute a moratorium on long-range missile tests.

“North Korea no doubt believes that it needs to perfect its ballistic missile technology (just as it surely wishes to perfect its nuclear devices). Yet today’s announcement raises a number of questions. When US negotiators were crafting what became Pyongyang’s February 29th statement, did they seek or receive any assurance that the missile-test moratorium included satellite launches? Was China, which so far has “taken note” of the North Korean announcement and called on “all parties” to act constructively, totally unaware of the North Korean plan? If so, that doesn’t speak well of its special relationship with Pyongyang. If it did, then it says volumes about its level of influence and willingness to use it.

“The most important question is why Pyongyang chose to announce a missile test at this time, so soon after its most recent smile diplomacy resulted in a limited yet non-trivial understanding with the United States. This may simply reflect a huge miscalculation. It certainly suggests that Pyongyang places greater emphasis on promoting the Kim Family Cult than on its external relations. Yet because the U.S.-North Korean understanding foreshadowed the possibility of a return to multilateral talks on denuclearizing North Korea, today’s announcement may suggest, once again, that Pyongyang is using provocations to avoid serious negotiations while a political transition is still underway.”

Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute for International Economics

A joint posting from Steph Haggard and PIIE’s Marc Noland tries to locate a reason for the DPRK decision:

“…this raises a more fundamental issue of who is making decisions in Pyongyang and how they are being made. We interpreted the 29 February deal as a positive development demonstrating that someone was in charge and that their first move was a conciliatory, even concessionary agreement. To reach that agreement and then to scuttle it before any benefits were derived would be buyer’s remorse in the extreme if not flat-out irrational. So what is going on? There are multiple possibilities, we will close with two.

“The simplest is whoever made the 29 February deal got too far out in front and has been reined in or otherwise bow to pressure to renege by other regime stakeholders. With respect to most political systems, this might be the most plausible explanation coming out of the box.

“But in the case of North Korea today, another alternative may be more plausible. Kim Jong-un is an inexperienced 28-year-old autocrat. His advisers went through the legalese and explained to him that they could sell the event as a satellite, not missile, launch and stay within the letter of the agreement. What they did not tell him and they may well not understand themselves, is that this interpretation will not fly in the US during an election year. They may have announced this intended action not understanding that it would have the effect of dooming the agreement. In some ways this is actually the more disturbing interpretation in that it brings back into play concerns about Kim Jong-un’s capacity to govern.

“So where does this leave us? One possibility might be a different form of ‘strategic patience’: that is to say, institute our own ‘freeze on the freeze,’ but with the ever-stated willingness to come back to the table when the North Koreans get serious – or figure out the full implications of their actions.

Any better ideas out there?”

Anonymous US Official

Finally, from a cross-section of deeply appreciated Loyal Reader comments, this from a US official involved in direct contacts with the DPRK:

“DPRK is unlikely to back down absent some major face-saving gesture by US (high level Presidential envoy to Pyongyang?) or the hammer dropping from Beijing (fuel cut-off, food cut-off). Neither of those moves are likely — DC is too passive, reactive, and unimaginative on DPRK policy, and Beijing is too committed to the success of the precocious leader. So USG seems certain to scuttle its end of the Leap Day deal…”

Back to Chris Nelson

Ironically, the DPRK would be pleased to proceed with IAEA monitors, freeze, and food, post satellite launch. After all, they are keeping their pledge, eh? It’s a satellite, not a missile…And so even though US interests would be well-served by freezing enrichment at Yongbyon and getting a moratorium on future ballistic missile and nuclear tests, it will be the US side that is put in position of formally canceling the deal. What a fiasco!

Your Editor has often “joked” that for us, N. Korea is a gift that gives every day, but for government types? Probably not so much. Today was One of Those Days.

Now the international reaction to all this may rest on whether China joins Russia in its stern statement condemning the DPRK announcement. However, in the meantime, the Gov’t of Iraq apparently announced an immediate cut-off of oil shipments to the DPRK, according to a questioner at the State briefing:

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday issued a statement expressing ”serious concern” over North Korea’s announcement of its plan to launch a rocket next month.

In the statement, Moscow requested that the North Korean leadership avoid confrontation with the international community by refraining from actions which could raise tension in the surrounding region or further complicate situations toward resuming the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

Much debate exists, still, on the difference between a “missile” and a “satellite” launch, and our much valued, patient Korea Discussion group has been fully activated all day on every aspect of this budding crisis, you may rest assured. Our 11 points in the Summary (above) reflects our distillation of views, and our additional private conversations with official sources.

To start off, several LR’s provided the “letter of the law” on “missile launch”, with Bruce Klingner arguing that whether a launch violates the 2/29 agreement or not is immaterial since it is not a signed joint document. He continues:

“The important point is that any ‘ballistic missile activity’ or ‘launch using ballistic missile technology’ would be a clear violation of UN Resolutions 1695, 1718, 1874. The distinction between ‘satellite’ launch and missile launch has been deemed irrelevant by the UNSC.

  • 1695 defined the claimed satellite launch of 1998 as ‘an object propelled by a missile’
  • UNSC presidential statement of 2009 ‘condemns the 5 April 2009 launch…which is in contravention of Security Council 1718’
  • 1874 ‘demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology’
  • 1874 ‘decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing moratorium on missile launches’
  • Etc. etc.”

Therefore, a launch would be another violation of UN resolutions (as, in fact, is the continued existence of the NK nuclear and missile programs). As such, there would be justification (if not the political will of the participants) for further UNSC action (e.g. another UN resolution; an expansion of sanctions; enabling enforcement by military means such as navies allowed to intercept and board NK ships; secondary sanctions on non-enforcing entities, etc.).

For the record: the freeze statement–US version–reads:

“To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”

The KCNA version reads:

“The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”

Not much wiggle room between them, do you agree?

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