As more than 50 world leaders gather in Seoul to address the task of how to more effectively secure nuclear materials, their landing path at Incheon airport will have taken them within range of North Korean surface-to-air missiles.
Although North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities aren’t formally on the agenda for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, Pyongyang’s leaders have done their best to ensure that North Korea won’t be forgotten in the global confab, first by announcing plans to launch a satellite in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, and then by threatening war if the summit issues a statement on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The United States and North Korea in their respective February 29 “Leap Day” statements tentatively seemed ready to hit the “reset” button in U.S.-North Korea relations, but Pyongyang has apparently hit the “replay” button instead by rewinding to the events surrounding North Korea’s long-range rocket launch in 2009.
Even more worrisome is that the recent satellite launch announcement puts North Korea on a collision course with the international community as North Korea seeks to consolidate political leadership under Kim Il-sung’s grandson, twenty-something Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il’s formal succession was accompanied by the launch of a Taepodong missile in 1998, and plans for Kim Jong-un’s succession were marked at an early stage three years ago by the North’s 2009 satellite launch, which was roundly condemned by a United Nations presidential statement.
North Korea’s outraged response to international efforts to ban its freedom to use outer space for peaceful purposes in 2009 included threats to conduct a nuclear test, which North Korea carried out only a month later. The strong international reaction that’s building in response to defiant North Korea’s latest satellite launch announcement will heighten outrage in Pyongyang, while Pyongyang’s defiant insistence on its right to conduct a satellite launch will further outrage the international community.
For the United States, continued North Korean long-range missile testing (even under the guise of a satellite launch) highlights the priority concern of North Korean vertical proliferation, identified in the June 2010 findings of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force on Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula, and underscores the concern expressed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in December 2010 that North Korea’s development of a long-range missile capability could become a direct threat to the United States.
The current path illustrates a fundamental dilemma for North Korea: actions taken to consolidate political leadership around Kim Jong-un may subject the country to international protest, while deference to international concerns may undermine internal political legitimacy. But what if there are efforts to call Pyongyang on its assertion that it’s only exercising its freedom to the peaceful use of space? What if the international community makes an offer that respects their right to send up a satellite but not a missile? If one sets aside the challenges of securing inter-agency support, North Korea’s clear efforts to wed the rocket launch to Kim Jong-un’s political consolidation, and the backdrop of electoral politics in South Korea and the United States, how might one construct a policy path that combines diplomacy and force in ways that offer Pyongyang a face-saving way of advancing its satellite aspirations without damaging internal legitimacy by backing down to international demands? Such a course might include the following steps: