North Korea: There They Go Again

What is it about North Korea and that country’s penchant for violating agreements?

The ink on the February 29th “Leap Day” agreement to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs was hardly dry when North Korea announced its intention to launch a satellite – a clear violation of that agreement, and of several UN Security Council resolutions. The Leap Day accord is now in peril. It is hard to imagine the United States keeping its side of the bargain if the North proceeds with the mid-April launch.

In retrospect, the U.S. decision to treat the February 29th agreement as a modest achievement was wise. Any agreement with Pyongyang has the potential to fall apart, and this one was particularly fragile – and limited in scope.

The February 29th accord, even if fully implemented, would only have returned conditions to December 2008, when a tenuous, self-imposed “freeze” was in place on the North’s nuclear and missile programs. But it would have set the stage for the United States, North Korea, and other members of the Six-Party Talks to restart negotiations on implementing the September 19, 2005 denuclearization agreement – which the DPRK abandoned when it found it no longer useful.

The North Koreans also treated the Leap Day accord in a low-key manner, probably because they had concluded they were getting little from the deal. In return for freezing their nuclear and missile programs, they received expressions of U.S. non-hostility and willingness to promote cultural and educational exchanges, a U.S. statement that sanctions were not meant to hurt the North Korean people, and, in a separate but parallel negotiation, 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance that the Korean People’s Army is unlikely to find appetizing. The North was also compelled to agree to a strict monitoring regimen for the food aid based on an accord originally negotiated by the Bush Administration.

With the looming collapse of the Leap Day agreement, some critics are faulting the Obama administration for its willingness to negotiate in good faith, rather than criticizing Pyongyang for breaking faith. Venting at the administration is badly misplaced. It also ignores the fact that each time Pyongyang breaks its word it strengthens the U.S. hand, making it easier to secure the support of the international community for tougher measures against the DPRK.

Three important questions about the satellite issue require answers. What was behind the satellite launch announcement? When and why did the DPRK decide to conduct the launch? And why did the North Koreans think that this would not undermine the February 29th agreement?

First, last week was not the first time that the DPRK spoke of its plans to launch a satellite. I first became aware of this possibility on December 15, 2011, during an exchange with a DPRK official. The official spoke at length about the DPRK’s “sovereign right” to conduct such launches and warned that any U.S. effort to interfere with or oppose this plan would make the DPRK even more determined to carry it out.

My North Korean interlocutor was well aware that a launch would violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions and would lead to serious consequences. This conversation convinced me that the DPRK was determined to carry out a launch in the near future.

The Obama administration had already heard similar statements from North Korean counterparts, and had already delivered a strong warning to the DPRK. The warning included specific statements that a launch would violate of the U.S.-DPRK understandings that eventually resulted in the Leap Day agreement.

Equally or even more important, my conversation took place three days before the death of Kim Jong-il. It thus seems likely that the decision to announce a launch had already been taken by the now-deceased Kim. After his death, the only question that remained was when to announce it.

Why did Pyongyang make the launch announcement? Chinese officials believe that the DPRK made this decision for internal political reasons, and this judgment seems entirely credible.

Domestic priorities, and particularly managing the succession of Kim Jong-un, have driven much of North Korea’s internal and external behavior since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in the summer of 2008. The North believed that announcing the launch would reaffirm the power and authority of Kim Jong-un, and perhaps help celebrate the conferring of additional titles on the young successor anticipated at a Korean Workers’ Party meeting in April.

A launch would also elevate the North’s national prestige (at least in its own eyes), please the military, and provide a dramatic statement commemorating the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth. Moreover, if the decision to conduct a launch had been made on Kim Jong-il’s watch, his son and successor was in no position to reverse that decision.

Why did the North Koreans think they could get away with a satellite launch, especially since they were in the midst of negotiations with the U.S. that would be put at risk by the announcement?

The North Korean calculation probably consisted of two elements. Pyongyang may have convinced itself that the United States was so eager to impose a freeze on the North’s medium- and long-range missile program (and therefore reduce its threat) that Washington would accept the North’s assertion that satellite launches are not missile launches.

Pyongyang may also have believed that the United States would not walk away from the Leap Day deal, since it had the potential to lead to a negotiation that would freeze and eventually dismantle significant parts of the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Despite the DPRK’s frequent profession of its commitment to the “goal” of denuclearization, the DPRK has been consistently reminding U.S. interlocutors that it intends to keep its nuclear weapons capability for a long time to come. During the recent visit to New York of DPRK Vice Foreign Minster Ri Yong-ho, he said nothing to contradict this.

Pyongyang may have calculated that the United States wanted the deal the DPRK has been proposing (a monitored freeze at Yongbyon and resumed negotiations to eliminate major components of their nuclear program) so much that the United States would accept the DPRK as a de facto nuclear weapons state for years to come.

We may be in for difficult and dangerous days ahead. A North Korean launch will almost certainly kill the food assistance deal, and the North Koreans could use that as an excuse to say they are no longer obligated to fulfill their commitment to freeze their nuclear and missile programs and re-admit IAEA monitors. But the North Koreans could also offer to re-admit IAEA monitors while proceeding with the launch, which would put the United States in a difficult position.

If the UN Security Council were to adopt additional measures against the DPRK after a launch, the DPRK might well carry out missile and nuclear tests, and a new downward spiral would begin. One thing seems certain: the frustrating challenge of dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities is about to get a lot more difficult.