Storms Brew in Pyongyang

North Korea is about to violate its recent missile-test agreement and several UN resolutions. Washington is running out of options.

North Korea never fails to shock the world. Within days after agreeing to a moratorium on missile tests, Pyongyang announced it would launch a “satellite” in April to commemorate the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung. Many critics initially believed that North Korea would back away from the agreement after receiving a significant amount of aid from the United States, but Pyongyang did so before receiving an ounce of “nutritional assistance.”

Later this month, a North Korean rocket will fly across the East China Sea and fall somewhere in the Philippine Sea. Most countries condemned the launch. Japan and South Korea issued warnings that they would intercept the “satellite” if it strays into their airspace, but that is unlikely to scare Pyongyang.

At the nuclear summit in Seoul, Chinese president Hu Jintao expressed concerns about the missile launch and agreed to coordinate with the United States in the case of a “potential provocation.” China’s efforts appear limited at best, allowing some North Korean defectors in the South Korean consulate in Beijing to fly to Seoul but otherwise not changing North Korean plans.

Meanwhile, Washington has declared that the deal would not survive the launch, and Pyongyang has made clear that nothing will stop it. Despite his administration’s professed humanitarianism, President Obama personally stated that, given the North’s flagrant repudiation of the deal, nutritional assistance to North Korean women and children provided under the deal could not go forward.

The Korean cognoscenti are having a field day trying to explain North Korea’s surprising behavior. While a few claim to have predicted the North Korean turnabout, most observers expressed surprise at its abrupt about face. Some attribute it to an internal power struggle; some suggest that North Korea never wanted to give up its nuclear program and intended to use U.S. hostility towards the satellite launch to justify further nuclear-weapons advances. Many favor a simpler explanation, one advertised by the regime itself for months: the launch was a long-anticipated part of the centennial celebration of Kim Il-sung and had to take place. (Although it is hard to explain the role of knowledgeable veteran North Korean negotiators, possibly in the dark but more likely simply followinged orders out of fear for the consequences.)

The fact is that we do not know what happened in Pyongyang, and it does not change the reality that the launch will directly violate UN Security Council resolutions 1714 and 1874. Unless Beijing is determined to intervene and pressure Pyongyang with all of its weight, the rocket launch seems inevitable, and Washington must prepare for a post-takeoff reality.

A New Game Plan

The United States (and just about everybody else) is sick and tired of Pyongyang and prefers that it disappear—but has not found the means to make that happen. The notion that China would solve the nuclear issue through the six-party talks, paraded as strategic brilliance by Bush-administration champions, has not worked. And heated domestic politics now make it harder to do anything with the most reviled and untrustworthy government in the world.

So policy makers are once again left with the same old problem—relatively treacherous negotiating circumstances—but with a new regime they know even less about. Outside of the unlikely event that Washington decides to try to shoot down the missile, there are two ways the United States can deal with the current situation. One is to do nothing: let North Korea feel its isolation, and after the launch again apply sanctions and other forms of international pressure and denunciation. This approach bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2009 crisis in which North Korea also launched a “satellite,” an action that infuriated the international community, lead to sanctions against the North and left the region in a state of sustained tension without dialogue. Needless to say, the situation did not improve: there was another nuclear-weapons test and a deadly turn for the worse in 2010 with two attacks on South Korea. Today, there are hints of the same scenario.

At the moment, however, Pyongyang appears intent on continuing negotiations with the United States. It has privately expressed to Washington its strong interest to act in accordance with the rest of the agreement. IAEA inspectors were invited to return to the country, and observers were asked to watch the launch. Officials are also scurrying around conveying to some concerned countries their dedication to talks and dropping hints on giving up the food aid. All this does not appear likely to open the way to resuming negotiations. It’s conceivable—but unlikely—that a promise to halt further missile testing might bring a very skeptical Obama administration back to negotiations.

There is another alternative, albeit one not politically possible in this election year. The administration could deal with all major aspects of the nuclear issue at the highest level, with a senior U.S. official such as the vice president in the lead. Prior commitment by the North to suspend all its nuclear and missile activities, including satellite launches, would help. There are, of course, all sorts of complications with this approach, but it is about time to change the endless incremental negotiating game.

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