The second Nuclear Security Summit convenes today in Seoul, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will be conspicuous by its absence. Like Iran, North Korea has been excluded from global deliberations over nuclear safety and the protection of nuclear materials. But out of sight is not out of mind.
On February 29, the U.S. and North Korea announced the first tangible steps to address the long-standing nuclear impasse between Pyongyang and the outside world. The nuclear stalemate has remained essentially unchanged since Pyongyang walked away from the Six Party Talks in late 2008, resumed nuclear weapons development, and openly declared its pursuit of a uranium enrichment capability. Following the February talks in Beijing, Washington pledged to resume food assistance, repeated past assurances of non-hostile intent, and stated it would undertake measures to enhance people to people contact with the North. In return, Pyongyang agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
However, guarded optimism on these parallel commitments proved fleeting. On March 16, North Korea announced plans to launch an earth observation satellite. According to Pyongyang, the planned launch (scheduled for mid-April) would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state. It was also expected to consolidate the power of Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s young and untested grandson, who was elevated to supreme leadership in the DPRK following the death of his father last December.
Pyongyang’s launch plans blatantly contradicted the understandings reached in Beijing. According to U.S. negotiators, both sides agreed that the pledge to forgo long-range missile tests encompassed satellite launch vehicles as well as rockets with a potential capability to carry a nuclear warhead. The DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists there was no such agreement, and argues that satellite launches are its unchallengeable sovereign right. For added measure, Pyongyang’s planned launch would openly defy a unanimous UN Security Council resolution of April 2009 that forbade the North from undertaking any rocket tests utilizing ballistic missile technology.
Three days prior to the opening of the Nuclear Security Summit, North Korea upped the ante. It warned that any effort to place the satellite issue on the summit agenda would be tantamount to “a declaration of war against the DPRK.” A separate statement warned that North Korea might be compelled “to take the strongest countermeasures which no one can imagine.” Pyongyang knows that the summit is focused on securing nuclear materials and preventing their diversion to terrorists and non-state actors, not on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But Pyongyang’s latest moves will be intensively discussed in bilateral meetings during the conference, leaving open how North Korea might choose to respond.
Pyongyang has issued dire warnings on previous occasions, and with more specificity and at more authoritative levels than in its latest statements. However, its two nuclear tests (first in 2006, again in 2009) followed soon after two attempted missile launches, so the threat of unspecified countermeasures needs to be taken seriously. It is too soon to tell whether these latest warnings from Pyongyang prefigure a major escalation of tensions on the peninsula, including a third nuclear test, but these possibilities cannot be lightly discounted.
Ironically, North Korea’s decision to announce its plans a month in advance of the actual launch is enabling face to face discussions in Seoul among the leaders of the five states involved in nuclear diplomacy with the DPRK. President Obama’s impending talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Medvedev will underscore the North’s deepening isolation if (as seems almost certain) it proceeds with the satellite launch. Beijing and Moscow have both signaled obvious displeasure at Pyongyang’s plans, though it remains uncertain what either are prepared to do in response.
North Korea retains inherent suspicions whenever it is the subject of high level discussions in its absence. But Pyongyang’s frustrations run even deeper. When South Korea was selected to host the second summit, Pyongyang’s discontent was visceral, and it has voiced repeated objections ever since. The contrast between the ever growing role of the Republic of Korea in global diplomacy and the widespread reproach generated by the North’s actions is palpable.
Pyongyang’s deep antipathies toward South Korean President Lee Myung-bak are another factor contributing to the DPRK’s open unhappiness about the summit. A successful outcome to the Seoul meeting will attest to South Korea’s ever larger international role and to the enhanced stature of President Lee. But Pyongyang perceives a growing possibility that the next ROK president (to be elected in December) will be someone much more to its liking. Should Pyongyang undertake another nuclear test or initiate other threatened actions, these expectations will be seriously undermined, despite the South Korean electorate’s shift to the left.
However, the North appears determined to act according to its own policy logic and self-defined interests, irrespective of the potential consequences. It remains mired in its circumstances very much of its own making. All affected powers must carefully deliberate their options, communicate openly with one another, and weigh their possible responses. Seoul is where these discussions must begin, as all ponder what steps the nearby but absent state might yet contemplate.