Now what? Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Six-Party Talks, the North Koreans pulled the rug out from under everyone, including themselves, by announcing a planned satellite launch to commemorate Great Leader Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday celebrations.
Pyongyang argues that there’s a difference between long-range ballistic missile tests (which it recently foreswore) and satellite launches using a long-range ballistic missile as the launch vehicle; a distinction lost on most others, very specifically including the U.N. Security Council, which has banned “all missile activity” by North Korea, including “any launch using ballistic missile technology.” While Pyongyang would like to believe that their distinction makes a difference, clearly they understand, post-U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874, that the rest of the international community isn’t buying this argument.
So what is Pyongyang up to? Nobody knows for sure, of course, but many are speculating that the contradiction between its February 29 declaration of a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and the announcement of an impending satellite launch reflects a power struggle of sorts within the leadership, with some accusing the North’s Foreign Ministry of having gotten too far out in front of the military and party leadership. That’s possible, but recall that the Leap Day announcement came a week after bilateral U.S.-North Korea negotiations; the foreign ministry had plenty of time to vet the agreement before making the announcement.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It’s at least equally possible that this was the plan all along. Raise hopes and then test the others by trying to fly a rocket through a (real or imagined) perceived loophole in the agreement. This was always going to prompt heated debates, especially within South Korean political circles but within the US and elsewhere as well, over whether or not to yield to the North’s interpretation and turn a blind eye to U.N. Security Council resolutions or to allow the February 29 “breakthrough” to break down. Sound familiar? Creating divisions within and between its interlocutors has long been a North Korean ploy, and with presidential elections in both the United States and South Korea this autumn, what better time to play another round of this time-honored game?
North Korea experts (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) can no doubt come up with a dozen more explanations somewhere in between these two extremes. Announcing the decision when it did, for example, drew attention away from the South’s diplomatic success in hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit while drawing attention to itself instead. (Pyongyang doesn't mind being despised, but it hates to be ignored or overshadowed.)
Rather than continuing to guess what Pyongyang is up to, however, it’s more important for the rest of us to know what we are going to do in response.
Seoul branded the North’s announcement a “grave provocative act against peace and stability,” but the opposition is sure to find a way to blame the renewed stalemate not on Pyongyang’s duplicity but on the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “hardline” policy toward the North.
Washington also branded the announced launch a “direct violation” of U.N. Security Council mandates, a threat to regional stability, and “inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.” This has posed a slight dilemma for the Obama administration since it was trying to persuade others (unsuccessfully) that the Leap Day announcement wasn’t a “food for freeze” deal. The food aid (reportedly suspended), according to the White House, wasn’t linked to the moratorium, but based strictly on humanitarian considerations. The North, on the other hand, trumpeted the link but claims, by its convoluted definition, that the impending “rocket launch” doesn’t technically violate its pledge.