North Korea: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Last week’s announcement that North Korea plans to launch a satellite— using a rocket with a design similar to that used in its ballistic missile program—effectively scuttles the agreement reached by the United States and North Korea on February 29 that had appeared to offer hope of a renewed process to contain and reverse North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs. 

Under the February 29 agreement, the North Koreans were to undertake to freeze their uranium enrichment program and invite IAEA inspectors to their announced facility at Yongbyon to monitor the freeze; to impose a moratorium on testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for as long as there was a constructive dialogue process; to respect the Korean armistice; and to honor the 2005 Six Party joint statement that lays out the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula and normalization of relations among the parties. In response, the United States announced its intention to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid (described as nutritional supplements aimed at vulnerable population groups, not grain, to decrease the risk of diversion to the military).

In 2009, the North Koreans launched a similar rocket with the purported goal of putting a satellite in space; the first two stages of the rocket worked, the third did not, and the satellite never went into orbit, despite North Korean claims to the contrary. The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement declaring that such satellite launches violated UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korean ballistic missile tests, thus closing a loophole that the North Koreans were seeking to exploit. The North Koreans obviously continue to reject the UN Security Council resolutions and definitions, and are seeking through this test to impose their rejection on the United States and the international community.

There is very little chance the North Koreans will postpone or cancel their satellite launch, which is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the state’s founder Kim Il-Sung. The Obama administration will not proceed with food aid in the wake of the launch. To do so would be to undercut the lesson that the Obama administration has been sending to Pyongyang since it came into office, namely that provocations will not produce rewards but on the contrary only further isolation.

This puts the Chinese in a difficult situation. The Obama administration has leaned hard on the Chinese to persuade the North Koreans to halt the test, and the Chinese are deeply irritated that the North Koreans have once again blown up a negotiation process that seemed to be inching forward. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called in North Korean diplomats twice in the last week to express their annoyance. But typically in the past, when the North Koreans made clear they would not budge, the Chinese, feeling they lacked leverage over Pyongyang, have turned pressure on Washington to try to persuade it to be flexible and continue the process. 

President Obama will be in Seoul this weekend and will meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao. While Hu is likely to express both irritation at the North Koreans and the need for U.S. patience and restraint, Lee will call for Obama to stand firm against this latest North Korean maneuver, which is doubtless aimed at part in influencing South Korean public opinion against Lee’s party in the run-up to the December presidential elections to choose Lee’s successor (counterintuitively, Pyongyang judges that its provocations influence South Korean voters to favor candidates with a more benign view of North Korea by persuading them that firm policies by Seoul lead to heightened tensions). 

President Obama can be expected to hew closely to Lee’s request, which is the best way to send the right message to Pyongyang. It is the proper short-term tactic. But by itself it will neither slow Pyongyang’s WMD programs nor bring it back to the table with a constructive attitude. The solution to that riddle has eluded the United States and the others in the Six Party process, and has not gotten any easier since Kim Jong-il’s death.