Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Looking the Other Way Can Be Good Policy

On the morning of Friday, March 16th, North Korea announced that on or around April 15th it is to launch a satellite named ‘Gwangmyungsung-3’. This is being done, according to the front page story in RodongShinmun which announced it, to welcome the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth which falls on the same day, and will “emphatically encourage our people and military as they push forward with the construction of the powerful state, and provide a vital opportunity to elevate our Republic’s technology for the peaceful use of space.”

Understandably taking a different position, the plan was immediately condemned in Washington and Seoul, with an official from the South Korean Foreign Ministry calling it a provocative act “threatening to Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian peace and security.” The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, found the notion sufficiently disturbing that it put out a statement at 4 o’clock in the morning.

In the aforementioned early morning missive, the U.S. objected stridently to the planned launch, noting that “UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 clearly and unequivocally prohibit North Korea from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology.” Reporters were also informed later in the day that duringnegotiations last month that resulted in the Leap Day Agreement, “We did warn them that we considered that a satellite launch of this kind would be an abrogation of that agreement.”

Which is nice. However, while warnings are all well and good, the agreement signed between the U.S. and North Korea in Beijing on February 24th doesn’t reflect these warnings very well at all. Instead, it says that North Korea agreed to “implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”

For obvious reasons, all political, none technical, North Korea chooses not to regard ‘satellite launches’ as being launches of long-range missiles, instead asserting the sovereign right of nations to make use of outer space.While this may all be starting to look like semantics to the uninitiated outside observer, it is, as Jeffrey Lewis dryly observed via Arms Control Wonk, “a loophole large enough to fly a Taepodong through.”

Though clearly an act of willful deception, this has given North Korea an out, and the reality is that we are going to have to live with it. As such, while it may not be how we would wish to reply, a measured response is clearly the best way forward.

We must start by clearing away some pervasive misconceptions. The biggest of these is that the timing of the launch announcement somehow shows fissures developing in the ruling elite. The fact is that there is nothing whatsoever in the way the news was released that lends weight to this thesis, which looks very much like yet another victory for hope over expectation.

First and foremost, it was announced a full month in advance. Not only that, it is set to coincide with the biggest state celebration for years and years in the shape of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth; it appeared on the front page of Rodong Shinmun and was subsequently very publicly backed (in Rodong Shinmun, again) by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was also lauded in the following day’s edition of the same Party publication. There is nothing in any of these acts to suggest even the slightest schism between mythical groups of conservatives and reformers in the ruling clique; mythical groups that, we should recall, were said not even to exist just three months ago when Kim Jong Il was still with us.

Indeed, when viewed through the lens of domestic symbolism and with one eye on the media methodology involved, the event is actually a perfectly logical addition to celebrations being arranged by a state intent on preserving itself as a de facto military dictatorship. In other words, it would have been odd if there had not been some form of military endorsement of the April 15thcelebrations and 4thWorkers’ Party Delegates’ Conference that is due come along with it. This is politically one of the most important times in North Korea’s brief history, so why are we pretending to be so shocked at this?

We should remember also that outside actors including the U.S. and South Korea tend to cite post-Kim Jong Il stability as a key aim of their diplomatic strategies. Indeed, the U.S.-North Korea ‘Leap Day Agreement’ deliberately reaffirms the fact that Washington has “no hostile intent” towards Pyongyang. If this is the case, then the only logical move is to react pragmatically to the launch. Of course it is a provocative political signal for Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, but it carries an equally strong message for the domestic audience, namely that North Korea is a 'strong and prosperous state' able to defend itself and which is being run according to coherent principles by competent military men in line with the inviolable Military-first Policy of dearly departed former leader Kim Jong Il, a man whose mythical “last instructions” are still being wielded by the authorities to justify state policy three months after his death. It is both highly impractical and completely inconsistent with the stated aim of allowing security to take root in post-Kim North Korea for regional powers of any hue to react to the launch in the current, hopelessly unrealistic manner. 

As such, the U.S. would be wise not to cut off the aid it agreed with Pyongyang in Beijing last month because of this, difficult though such a decision would be. That aid is made up of 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance," and as North Korea well knows, cutting it off will only attract negative public opinion; first, because withdrawing it hits the needy hardest, and second, because it shows clearly the presence of a link between aid and politics which the US administration continues to refute.

The best, most pragmatic and productive course is to go ahead with this aid delivery while informing Pyongyang that while the international community recognizes the importance of April in terms of domestic coherence, this type of launch is unacceptable and will preclude the delivery of aid in the form of grains for the foreseeable future.

In so doing, it should not be forgotten that such a pragmatic response is made viable precisely because April’s launch will be only the third such event in fully fourteen years. This means that North Korea is not testing its ICBM capability anywhere close to often enough to be sure of its reliability. If a missile runs a significant risk of exploding on the launch pad, North Korea would be no more prepared to launch it than any other state. In addition, if Pyongyang cannot be sure that said missile can even reach the U.S., much less hit a target when it gets there, then the same logic applies.

In response to this line of reasoning, one may point to recent suggestions that North Korea is cooperating with Iran on missile testing, allowing it to overcome technical problems those three tests in fourteen years would otherwise permit to fester. If true then it is undoubtedly a problematic and undesirable state of affairs, but the fact is that if Iran is testing North Korean missiles then there is little we can do to stop the missiles and/or their engines being tested somewhere, so we would be wise to remove the issue from discussion of this April launch, and treat it for what it is; a purely political statement.

It is time to call Pyongyang’s bluff. We must treat the launch in April as a domestic undertaking for the domestic North Korean audience. It is by far the smartest choice.

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