The Debate

North Korea Jeopardizes Deal

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The Debate

North Korea Jeopardizes Deal

North Korea’s vow to launch a satellite could jeopardize a food aid deal. But famine isn’t the only problem.

The United States and China are coordinating their response to North Korea’s vow to launch a satellite next month, a move that many analysts argue is simply cover for the testing of a long-range missile.

In a press briefing early this morning, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said that President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao had “agreed to coordinate closely in responding to this potential provocation and registering our serious concern to the North Koreans and of course to, if necessary, consider what steps need to be taken following a potential satellite launch.”

“I think the bottom line that the president had in his meeting with President Hu is a message that he’s been delivering over the course of the last two days, which is that North Korea’s new leadership has to understand that they’re not going to be rewarded for provocation,” Rhodes said. “That, in fact, they’re only going to suffer from engaging in provocative acts, and that they need to understand that a better future for North Korea is only going to come if they move in the direction of living up to their obligations, and again, meeting their responsibilities to the international community.”

The issue of “rewarding” the North Korean leadership is now tied to a deal announced only last month in which North Korea agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. According to a U.S. State Department statement at the time, North Korea also agreed to the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors “to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.”

The United States is, for its part, offering 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance, and although the U.S. government is keen to stress that such humanitarian assistance isn’t tied to politics, it’s clear that the deal will be under serious threat if North Korea proceeds with the launch.

However, contrary to some media reports today, the agreement has not yet been suspended yet.

I talked with a State Department spokesperson this afternoon who confirmed that although a satellite launch would certainly be considered inconsistent with the so-called Leap Day agreement, that there has been no suspension of the agreement.

The administration is caught between a rock and a hard place now that it has made the deal. That North Korea is in need of food aid is in no doubt. Nearly two-thirds of North Koreans are dependent on the government-run Public Distribution System. During last year’s lean season, daily rations fell to below 7 ounces, which as the Los Angeles Times noted, “is roughly equivalent to a bowl of cereal.”

“North Koreans are still reeling from a particularly bad year in 2011 – potato and barley fields were frozen during a harsh winter in late 2010. Flooding last summer then destroyed fields of rice and maize. The number of children admitted to North Korean hospitals for malnutrition as much as doubled.

“The United Nations estimates that 400,000 metric tons of grain will be needed to prevent a food shortage this year, only half of what the country needed in 2011 but still a significant amount.”

But even if the food deal goes ahead, and even if North Korea decides against its missile test (the Council on Foreign Relations’ Scott Snyder writing in The Diplomat yesterday had a few ideas on how it could be dissuaded) and complies with its nuclear obligations, the regime’s shocking treatment of its own people would likely continue.

This treatment was underscored in an opinion piece in the Washington Post yesterday, an article that chimes with testimony to The Diplomat of Robert Park, a Korean American who was detained and tortured in North Korea after crossing into the country. Park talked of the country’s labor camps, forcible abortions and infanticide, and the forcible transfer and enslavement of children.

His views are echoed by the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt, who recounts the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, “who was bred, like a farm animal, inside a North Korean prison camp after guards ordered his prisoner-parents to mate.”

“Shin was born a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence.”

There were hopes that the passing of Kim Jong-il, and the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, might spark some kind of rethink of North Korea’s policy. In part this was based on some tenuous wishful thinking – Kim Jong-un had spent time at school in Switzerland and liked basketball. The problem is, of course, that Kim Jong-il was also an avid consumer of American pop culture, and this doesn’t appear to have tempered his behavior in any discernible way. And the fact is that Kim Jong-un’s relative youth means he has an uphill struggle to persuade key North Korean players, including the military, that he is up to the task of filling his father’s shoes.

Thumbing his nose at the international community by firing a rocket is one way of doing that. Sadly, the well-worn cycle of make a deal, break a deal looks like it might be about to be played out again, but this time in record time.