Friday, April 27, 2012

Potemkin ICBMs: So Good We Had to Hide Them

The game of "are they real or ain't they" which has surrounded a set of ICBMs on (allegedly) Chinese TEL's that North Korea allowed to rumble through Pyongyang on the 15th doesn't particularly interest me, but for the sake of adding circumstantial evidence to the "they're clearly just mock-ups" hypothesis, here is a picture from a friend of mine, Tony Henshall, with whom I was lucky enough to enjoy the parade in question from a location just across the Taedong River.

North Korean ICBM on Chinese TEL crossing Okryu Bridge in Pyongyang, April 15th, 2012 (©Tony Henshall)
As you can see, Tony has done us the service of capturing a lovely shot of one of the mysterious projectiles on its TEL coming across Okryu Bridge, i.e moments after it passed through Kim Il Sung Square.

Note that unlike every other piece of military hardware that passed by, these "ICBMs" were all shrouded in camouflage netting, just like the one above. Admittedly I'm not a military man, but I couldn't help thinking that this did not mean that the weapons were actually so advanced that the Chosun People's Army dared not let foreigners see them close up lest they sell the secrets abroad; rather, that the closer one were allowed to get to them, the less believable they were likely to become.

The takeaway? At the very least it makes me wonder whether our North Korea policy might not be best off starting with, "Your rockets don't work, your missiles are fake and you can never launch your nukes in anger anyway, so what exactly are you hoping to achieve?"

Strategic patience? Strategic indifference, perhaps.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Holding North Korea to a Higher Standard

Shortly before I was due to fly out of Gimpo Aiport on a perfectly serviceable, relatively inexpensive and wholly successful (notwithstanding some fairly unfriendly service) China Southern Airlines jet plane on the morning of the 13th, the North Korean regime finally pinged its much vaunted, long awaited and reportedly rather more expensive ‘Unha-3’ rocket into the sky. But, as we all know, it wasn’t up there for long; indeed, back-of-an-envelope calculations suggest that my antiquated Boeing flying machine was in the sky for approximately 110 times longer than the mysterious projectile let loose from Cheolsan County in North Pyongan Province at 7:39AM. It also came down in both the location and manner intended.

However, neither the China Southern success story nor the North Korean failure was the interesting point. The interesting point was that the North actually admitted to the failure on Chosun Central TV just four hours after it happened. Naturally, the question was and remains, “Why?”

The truth is probably simple, as the truth often is. In essence, the authorities were forced to quickly conclude that they couldn’t keep such a thing under wraps forever. 

Born of watching Pyongyang’s approach to World Cup qualifying matches over a number of tournament cycles, my hypothesis is that the authorities had assumed (wrongly) that they would be able to manage the launch by recording it and then showing it off to reporters as and when it had been confirmed as a success (a fair presumption being that this would be the case, since the last time a similar stunt was tried the rocket went a very, very long way indeed).

This plan, had it been implemented, would have been in contrast to that of 2010, when the North went into the World Cup in South Africa with unreasonably high hopes after stunning Asia with an exceptional qualifying round performance, and the authorities therefore decided that the finals would be broadcast live to the folks back home. Only losing by a single goal to Brazil in the North’s opening match exacerbated this illusory trend, but that then made losing 7-1 to Portugal a few days later come as a very nasty shock indeed. The takeaway? One must be vigilant for errors born of chance. Micromanage: record, record, record.

However, this cautious initial plan was impossible for two reasons. First, with so many international journalists, tourists and pin-badged Friendship Association riff-raff loitering around the place, the likelihood of the Pyongyang citizenry finding out about the failure for themselves was deemed to be extremely high, meaning that the regime felt it would be better off revealing the "failure to enter orbit" for itself; and second, with so many people (a) able to hear the news from South Korean radio stations in places like Kaesong and (b) receiving it in the process of doing cross-border business in China, the chances of the truth leaking into society via those routes was considered similarly great, meaning that the traditional twin options of either claiming success or simply saying nothing were out of reach.

Thus the North was, for almost the first time in history, forced to admit to failure.

In the light of that fact, one question stands out: could it be that if the international media, notably Associated Press but also ITAR-TASS and Xinhua, were to “man up” and do the job journalists should be doing in deeply inhospitable environs (rather than the opposite, which KCNA already does to great effect) and if the South Korean government could simultaneously be persuaded to permit a broad range of radio broadcasters to utilize domestic FM frequencies to broadcast (informative, rather than openly propagandist) news and current affairs information into North Korea on a daily basis, at cheaper rates and with greater clarity than current circumstances allow, then we would have the capacity to hold the government of Kim Jong Eun to higher standards of honesty going forward than has ever been the case before?

You may scoff and say that nothing has changed. But there's only one way to find out.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Calling a Halt to Default Disengagement

On Friday March 30th, I headed over to Yonsei University in Seoul to see Professor John Delury. On North Korean issues Delury is a progressive proponent of constructive engagement, and on this particular day he had just published a piece in Foreign Policy with Moon Chung In called 'The Land of Lesser Evils'. The piece was itself similar to a piece published by the two in the Korea Times on the 25th of last month, 'Obama's Options for Koreas'. There is not much to choose between the two, with the possible exception of the title, a battle that Foreign Policy wins hands down.

Anyhow, Delury and Moon want to see the Obama administration send an envoy to Pyongyang immediately to talk to North Korea. Not to get the Kim Jong Eun regime to cancel the launch, it appears, since Delury told me that he agrees with Destination Pyongyang's view that this is probably impossible, but to make sure that it doesn't derail all progress and ensure that the U.S. can get something out of the current undesirable situation.

Do I agree with Professor Delury? In part, yes. I think an envoy is untenable in the current domestic U.S. environment, but in and of itself is not a bad idea. Either way, to coincide with the release of my interview article on Daily NK here, below is a transcript of the most interesting parts of the Delury-Green interview-cum-debate;

Destination Pyongyang: The main thrust of your recent op-eds with Moon Chung In seems to be that an envoy should be sent to Pyongyang prior to the rocket launch; however, just so we are all starting from the same jumping-off point, would you please outline your overall thesis.

John Delury: I would say that the sending of an envoy is the action we think should be taken to change the dynamics. At the moment there is a common description of what is likely to unfold here, and it’s really a replay of 2009. We are not the only ones saying this; Chris Green is trying to find other ways; Andray Abrahamian is also thinking about how to prevent it, Scott Snyder… he wrote it up on CFR and at The Diplomat, I think.

DP: Ah, so Scott Snyder declared the launch package idea he premiered at Asan Research Institute last week to be a sensible one and ran with it a little way did he?

JD: Yes. And that has got parallels with what Moon Chung In and I are saying, although there are some important differences; Scott has a much stronger stick there; he mentioned blowing things up…

DP: I think the phrase was, “Take things off the launch pad.”

JD: Right. However, I understand what he is doing, and although his idea is different to ours I see them as sister projects because he is proposing some very proactive engagement diplomacy; simply, his is backed by even stronger action than is currently being considered. Anyway, it runs parallel with ours in that it is trying to avoid the default ‘disengagement’ that is going on now. In conclusion, there is a small group of us who are trying to prevent the obvious path that this is currently following.

Behind our proposal lies an assessment of why the reversal from the Leap Day Deal to the satellite announcement happened. We focus on the context of what is likely to be the domestic debate in North Korea right now; I mean, Kim Jong Il has just died, it is only the second time that the state has lost its paramount leader in six decades, more than 60 years, so this is a pretty extraordinary moment in terms of their domestic politics. Our model of North Korea includes differences of opinion and different interests, vested interests. We can broadly say that some are reformist and inclined towards opening, while others are basically isolationist and happy with the isolation, not wanting things to work out internationally. We see it as a dynamic situation; we disagree with the idea of a monolithic puppet master where everyone is unified, there’s one game plan and apparent reversals are being orchestrated to trick everyone else.

DP: Did you buy into it that monolithic North Korea concept when Kim Jong Il was still alive?

JD: No. I think we can argue for a progressively decreasing scale of authority, from the peak of the Kim Il Sung era with his personal authority, charisma and incredible history of knowing what everyone did and having everyone in their place, all the way down to the weakened system we see now. I don’t think Kim Jong Il ever woke up and said, “OK, here is what we’re going to do, now everyone go and do it” either, there were already those different interests and there was internal competition then, too. If we did the historical work we could probably find splits even in Kim Il Sung’s era.

DP: We may learn more about that further down the road.

JD: Right. Anyway, the argument is not that this is new and suddenly the case now that Kim Jong Il has died.

I think the other key characteristic of our analysis is that these different groups are all seeing different things, arguing different ideas and seeing what works, but the outcome depends in great measure on the response externally. This is especially true for those who are proponents of opening, moderating and normalizing relations. If these people don’t get usable responses externally then they have no argument back in Pyongyang. They constantly have to sell it, going up against people who are skeptical or don’t want it to work because of their interests or history or whatever other factor it may be. So, that is the context in which we read the satellite launch; we see it as one of the less provocative, bellicose, aggressive things that North Korea could have done under the circumstances.

DP: But you suggest one possible alternative North Korean course of action as being a battle in the West Sea. This, I would argue, wouldn’t have the same gravitas as the rocket. Indeed, it would be an accident of sorts, and while it could be marketed as a great defense or something along the lines of “we sent them running with their tail between their legs,” it couldn’t be marketed as being something the North intended to happen. So it doesn’t make sense to me.

JD: That’s a good point; maybe a better example alternative would have been a ‘demonstration of military might in a more explicitly military way’. The thing about the satellite is that it really emphasizes peaceful use of technology. The North Koreans want to show off their prowess, they want to show off how modern they are, and they need something big that they can get foreign journalists to cover and can show to their people to say, “Wow, look at us, this is incredible,” but they are doing it through a peaceful mechanism. They could just do a long-range ballistic missile launch or something else military; new, massive exercises on air, sea and land, for example. Of course we may see that on April 25th, especially if things keep going as they are. So, I take your point, but I stand by the idea that they could have decided to use some other powerful demonstration of a more explicitly military nature.

DP: Such a thing wouldn’t fit into a grey area of any kind, either, of course.

JD: Right, exactly.

DP: They are obviously pitching to a grey area.

JD: This got dropped from the Foreign Policy piece, but what we see in the bigger picture is that they are trying to make a transition to both security and prosperity, and it is a very difficult transition for them. Therefore,they are going to need a lot of handholding. This satellite launch is one of the times when they basically need their hands held. There are different ways to do this; you can hold their hand in such a way that you, as the USA, say, “Look, we can’t handle you doing this so we will do it for you.” Or you can suck it up but say, “This is really bad form, you cannot go around doing deals then turn around and find a grey area and make us look bad if you really want a new relationship.”You can really lay down the law, but get some other stuff through your envoy in Pyongyang in return. At the end of the day, you can say, “We are not going to clap for your launch but we’re not going to let it kill everything, we are going to keep moving.” That is a form of handholding too, and a very different strategy to that which the administration seems to be pursuing.

DP: My argument is that you should do nothing. I think the launch is guaranteed to happen, so we would be wise to do nothing, because if you send an envoy and they launch the thing anyway it constrains your options later, since domestically people get angry that you’ve sent an envoy and he has come back empty-handed. He’s messed it up, it’s all over, and you’ve got nothing. Conversely, you say send the envoy before the launch. It seems risky.

JD: Yeah, it is riskier, it is more aggressive. I like do nothing, and I think it makes sense as a sister proposal, but I suppose the reason I would stick with what we are suggesting is that I think passivity is a big source of the problem here. I want to see the Obama administration get hungry and get in there to deal with these guys and build relationships; especially now when things are in a bit of flux on their side. This is when you want to be in there, figuring out the players, working out what can and can’t be done and what they want and where they are going to screw you.

I think “do nothing” would be a good fallback plan, but I’d still rather see a more proactive strategy. First of all, you don’t have to tell them that much about why you are sending them the envoy; just send in this high-powered person. I like Colin Powell for the job; it’d be like the Perry Process. I want to see a Powell Process.

DP: Henry Kissinger? Is he too old?

JD: I don’t like him; I like Powell. But as you say, we need to be careful about expectations, so we must not set it up as sending an envoy to get the launch cancelled. Simply get in there and negotiate. There may still be room to get it cancelled, although I agree that it looks very unlikely. However, the advantage of sending someone now is that you can get them to promise something you want in return for doing what Chris Green wants, which is nothing.

Conversely, if you just wait then you get nothing out of their launch. But if you send someone in and the North is nervous and excited about the visit and wants it to be a good one, then they are under some pressure to deliver. At the end of the day, if you can say, “I have instructions that allow us to do nothing about this launch but here is what we expect in return” then that is a good position to be in. Unfortunately, politically we are both running out of time, and in the current situation, after all the criticism that has already been issued, doing nothing seems harder than sending someone senior to Pyongyang.

DP: I suspect you might be right.

JD: The problem is that the approach seems to be that whenever North Korea does anything you don’t like or find objectionable in any area, particularly on the nuclear issue, then you just cancel everything else.

DP: And go all the way back to square one.

JD: Right. Our view is the complete opposite; you have to keep as many things going as you can, and when you have a problem try to contain that problem and deal with it. If you can’t solve it then maybe get something somewhere else for it. On the launch; if you cannot cancel it, then make sure you get something elsewhere in exchange for allowing it. Keep up the full court press of engagement.

Sports metaphors can be helpful, right? How many times has the administration used the metaphor, “The ball’s in your court”? This is like trying to play a game of tennis where you hit the ball but the other side doesn’t want to hit it back so you just sit there going, “Come on, come on, come on, it’s in your court, it’s in your court,” while they are saying, “Actually, it is in your court, the ball is behind you.” In reality there’s a ball behind each player and they are just sat there yelling at each other.

So maybe a soccer metaphor would be better. The ball is in play, so let’s maintain possession to keep pressuring the North Korean opposition, keep pushing. You see, we need to understand that all these different forms of engagement, from the mill-to-mill Pentagon stuff, various kinds of economic things that take a minimalist approach to sanctions, cultural exchanges, the food assistance; all these are pressuring the North Korean system; they are not rewarding it. These things are hard for their system to take, and tend to generate a lot of resistance. If you’ve been to North Korea or worked with North Koreans you can understand this; it’s frustrating and difficult for them too, they are pulling their hair out trying to work with Americans. There is a massive gap here, and closing it is stressful, threatening and destabilizing. So you have to want it, be committed, hold their hand the whole time and not look to cut it off the minute they do something you disagree with. Do the opposite, in fact. Just keep working it.

DP: My favored metaphor is also soccer related. Maybe soccer is the way forward. Either way; do you support a return to the Sunshine Policy?

JD: I think the key thing is that it needs to be Sunshine 2.0.

DP: Which is?

JD: I don’t know. But I am hoping that there are some much more informed and smarter South Koreans than I who are coming up with it. Certainly, if it is a choice between the Sunshine Policy and this administration’s policy then yes, I support the Sunshine Policy. But I think the critical thing is the 2.0 part. You have to learn lessons and have to be self-critical, ask yourself what were the weaknesses first time around and what has changed. You can’t just go right back to what you were doing before. The basic spirit was right, but too much has changed and modifications are needed.

DP: I recently met an influential figure in the Sunshine Policy the first time around, and he said that he thought the process had been over-politicized. He said President Kim Dae Jung over-politicized it and went to Pyongyang too early. He said he advised Kim to sit tight and let the next president go, but he went too early because he was too keen to be the first to go. He thinks the fungible nature of the assistance was not the biggest problem, which I take issue with because the North developed nuclear weapons off the back of all this sunshine, but regardless he believes it was mostly political.

Anyway, the Snyder proposal includes a launch package offer for the North. Does it have any legs?

JD: I think in the short term probably not, but in the medium term perhaps yes. If you look back, that was one of the key points on offer when Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang in 2000. The U.S. doesn’t want North Korea doing anything from the ground up into space, but once North Korea is in space then Washington is fine with it. I think it could be something concrete to bring to the table for these negotiations we are proposing. However, the likelihood of doing it to stop the current launch is incredibly small.

DP: When I heard Scott Snyder’s suggestion it immediately struck me as a non-starter, and this was because when you’re reading Rodong Shinmun, if you are unlucky enough to have to do that for a living, you find that they talk in terms of “with our own technology”, “in our own way”, “this is our strength”, “look what we can do” and even, on occasion, joke about South Korea’s launch failures, saying, “They have no right to comment on our work since their space launches are crap and we have much more skill than them.” So, I suspect they are never going to take the launch package offer because it means too much domestically to go it alone. I just can’t see it.

JD: That’s part of why I agree with you over the impending launch. There is too much pressure due to ‘Juche 100’ and the need to do it for themselves. However, think about if the USA is launching North Korean satellites from Florida with a big DPRK flag on the front of an American missile in the long term! You also read enough Rodong Shinmun and know enough about North Korean ideology to realize that there is this weird exception to the rule; when the USA and DPRK flag go up together, be it for a symphony orchestra or whatever, then that is a moment of incredible pride for them.

DP: The idea that “they came to bow to us”?

JD: Yes, partly that, but they can spin it as a mixture of “they came to bow to us” plus “finally they are accepting us, our strength and legitimacy, and they know we can launch a satellite but they are afraid of us so we will let them do it for us.” I think if the United States is launching satellites for North Korea then it will compensate ideologically for not doing themselves.