The DPRK Rocket and Korean Peace by Georgy Toloraya

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by Russian North Korea expert Georgy Toloraya. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

Why would North Korea sacrifice its long-cherished dream of improving relations with the United States for such a trivial thing as “fireworks” for a national holiday? Around the world, people are wracking their brains trying to explain this seemingly sudden “satellite launch” decision, and the theories that have emerged so far can be grouped as follows:

  1. The DPRK had a calculated plan: first, reach an agreement that is attractive to the United States; then do something highly provocative to raise the stakes and create crisis; and finally, after the dust settles, negotiate from a position of strength to get more. In the process, North Korea also planned to confirm its status as a nuclear power and undermine the position of South Korean conservatives.[1]
  2. The decision to launch a rocket is the result of a rift between “soft-liners” and “hard-liners” in Pyongyang, in the absence of strong leadership (as President Obama said, “we don’t know who’s calling the shots”). The North Korean negotiators did not know about the launch plan and did not discuss this issue with their American interlocutors when working out the “Leap Day” agreement.
  3. There are even more exotic theories that imply it was a US plot to reach an agreement that demonstrated its desire for peace, while fully understanding that a satellite launch, about the right to which North Koreans have warned, would break the deal. As a result, there would be no need to fulfill controversial US obligations (like discussing the provision of an LWR and the lifting of sanctions), and they would gain new leverage to pressure an inexperienced North Korean leader to the brink of surrender. Paradoxically, the events unfolding so far fall well into such a scenario.

I believe, however, as often happens when real-world politics are analyzed by theoreticians, that the extent to which multistage planning was involved has been exaggerated, and that the influence of chaotic factors has been largely underestimated. In all likelihood, this is probably a case of diplomatic mishap, where both sides—both well intentioned to achieve meaningful results and promptly report them—due to internal policy considerations (the election campaign in United States and the official announcement of Kim Jong Un’s status on Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday), pushed their luck too far. In fact, they did not quite grasp each others’ real intentions or reach the right conclusions. It has been reported that in the talks, the North Koreans repeatedly said that the DPRK reserved the right to a peaceful satellite launch, and although the American side warned that any such action would be a deal-breaker, the North Koreans probably regarded these warnings as merely rhetoric, while the Americans believed their message had hit home. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: