It’s leap day 2016, which gives us one extra day this year in which to ponder the problem of North Korea. Indeed, it’s an appropriate moment to reflect on the so-called U.S.-North Korea “Leap Day Deal,” which, for a brief moment in 2012, suggested that the United States might have finally figured out a way to bring Kim Jong-un’s North Korea to the negotiating table with preconditions on nuclear and long-range missile testing.
Four years later, in 2016, the “Leap Day Deal” is largely forgotten, recalled only as a failure. North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test and February 2016 satellite launch have come to remind U.S. policymakers of just how unsuccessful their diplomatic efforts have been over the past years.
In late-February 2012, just two months after Kim Jong-il had passed away and Kim Jong-un, his son, had taken over North Korea, Washington and Pyongyang held “exploratory” bilateral discussions in Beijing, following up on outreach in late-2011 that had started when Kim Jong-il was still alive. (Background on those talks is available in more detail here.) The efforts culminated in a set of agreements that were unveiled on February 29. According to a U.S. State Department press statement on the occasion, North Korea “agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”
In Washington, the guarantees were seen at the time as a cautious sign that the new Kim in town might turn a new leaf. The United States was ready to release a targeted food aid program for Pyongyang, delivering 240,000 metric tons of ”nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need,” provided North Korea complied. North Korea’s interest in the food aid had been stated earlier, in 2011.
The effusion of optimism was short-lived. Weeks after the “Leap Day” show of goodwill from North Korean negotiators in Beijing, Pyongyang held a satellite launch in April, attempting to send the Kwangmyongsong-3 into orbit. The launch failed, but it succeeded in scuttling any hope that the Leap Day deal had longevity. Pyongyang followed that up with a successful launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 in December 2012. Finally, sealing the coffin on the Leap Day deal, Kim Jong-un oversaw his first nuclear weapons test in February 2013.
At the time, observers of North Korea suggested that Kim Jong-un’s willingness to enter talks with the United States “[augured] well .. for Kim Jong Un’s foreign-policy smarts.” Even if that were true at the time, that line of reasoning didn’t consider Kim’s domestic policy smarts. The two Kwangmyongsong-3 launches in 2012, the February 2013 nuclear test, and even the eventual purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek in December 2013 underlined Kim’s bid to earn legitimacy in front of the North Korean leadership’s old guard–from the many geriatric generals who’d served by his father’s side.
Abiding by the Leap Day deal, which had been concluded just months after Kim Jong-il had died, would certainly have cost Kim Jong-un “legitimacy” at the highest levels of the Korean Workers’ Party. Kim’s interests internally were better served by showing that he was willing to carry forward the torch of songun and juche by keeping North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs on track. He’d eventually come to announce his byungjin line, which is an increasingly important part of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea to this day.
The Obama administration may have learned from the hard lessons of the Leap Day deal. A recent Wall Street Journal report, for example, showed that Washington had approached Pyongyang for direct talks without requiring a good faith implementation of a moratorium on nuclear weapons work beforehand. (Pyongyang rejected the overture after concerns that the agenda of these talks would include its nuclear program and subsequently tested a nuclear weapon on January 6, 2015.)
One leap year since the 2012 Leap Day deal, prospects for direct diplomacy between the United States and North Korea remain unlikely. North Korea’s recent satellite launch and nuclear test, combined with increasingly harsh U.S. sanctions, suggest that a diplomatic breakthrough won’t be forthcoming.