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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Missile Launch Announcement

by and Marcus Noland | March 16th, 2012 | 05:49 pm
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The Freeze deal was announced in a press conference by Victoria Nuland on February 29. Today, the North Koreans announced their intention to launch a long-range missile in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which falls on April 15, less than a month away. The announcement jeopardizes the 29 February deal, and indeed, even calls into question the decision-making capacity of the North Korean government.

As a basis for discussion, let’s provide the relevant statements and legal precedents, and then we will discuss the politics. But we should also be cautious; this is a prospective event which hasn’t happened yet and as always, the real question is what—if anything—to do about it.

The KCNA statement reads as follows, and comes from an obscure source:

Pyongyang, March 16 (KCNA) — The spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology announced Friday that the DPRK will launch a home-made application satellite to mark the centenary of birth of President Kim Il Sung [Kim Il-so'ng] (April 15)…

A further elaboration followed, which offered “assurances, North Korean style.”

“The DPRK is to launch a working satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, manufactured by itself with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung. A spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said this in a statement Friday [16 March]. Kwangmyongsong-3, a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite, will be blasted off southward from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province between April 12 and 16, lifted by carrier rocket Unha-3. A safe flight orbit has been chosen so that carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries. The DPRK will strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes and ensure maximum transparency, thereby contributing to promoting international trust and cooperation in the field of space scientific researches and satellite launches. The upcoming launch will greatly encourage the army and people of the DPRK in the building of a thriving nation and will offer an important occasion of putting the country’s technology of space use for peaceful purposes on a higher stage.”

After the irate response to the 1998 missile test, the North Koreans have prided themselves on abiding by international notification protocols with respect to their “satellite launches,” but of course the question is whether a satellite and missile launch is a distinction without a difference. We come back to that in a moment.

To dot i’s and cross t’s, here are the freeze statements. US version reads: “To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”

The KCNA version of the freeze reads: “The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.”

Unless the North Koreans have decided that “productive dialogue” has somehow ground to halt after less than a month, the only interpretive issue has to do with whether the announced “satellite” launch is a missile launch.  Not only has the US spoken on this; the international community—in the form of the UNSC has as well. Of course, the North Koreans have rejected these resolutions, but here they are for the record:

UNSC 1695 adopted July 15, 2006 following North Korean missile tests, noted the failure of the North Koreans to notify on the launch—something they subsequently corrected in 2009–and then:

“1. Condemns the multiple launches by the DPRK of ballistic missiles on 5 July 2006 local time;

2. Demands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballisticmissile programme, and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching;…”

UNSC 1718, adopted after the October 2006 nuclear tests,

“2. Demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile;…”

An important document from the standpoint of the missile vs. satellite issue is the UNSC Presidential Statement of April 13, 2009, which was negotiated after Japanese efforts to get a UNSC resolution in the wake of the missile test failed. Reading this, you can just see the Chinese wrangling over language, because it artfully sidesteps directly equating the “launch” with a missile test. But come on; you be the judge:

“The Security Council bears in mind the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia as a whole.

The Security Council condemns the 5 April 2009 (local time) launch by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is in contravention ofSecurity Council resolution 1718 (2006).

“The Security Council reiterates that the DPRK must comply fully with its obligations under Security Council resolution 1718 (2006).

“The Security Council demands that the DPRK not conduct any further launch.”

Its hard to see how the “launch” could have been in violation of UNSC 1718 unless it was a missile launch; 1718 does not say that the North Koreans should not “launch” but they should not test missiles.

But that loophole was cleaned up in UNSCR 1874. Again, for the record, the Resolution (italics added):

“2. Demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology;

3. Decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to amoratorium on missile launches;

4. Demands that the DPRK immediately comply fully with its obligationsunder relevant Security Council resolutions, in particular resolution 1718 (2006);…”

Its hard for us to seen any legal ambiguity here.

Maybe we should have been more explicit in warning them that when we said “no more missile tests” we also meant “no more satellite launches.” But this would be to descend into the disingenuous; it is inconceivable to us that the North Koreans were unaware of our position on the issue, given what was communicated to them in 2009 and no doubt during the recent talks as well. And even if it were not communicated–which it almost certainly was–this is not a misreading on the part of Pyongyang; it is eyes wide open.

A particular dilemma the announcement raises for US policy is the food component of the package. The US has repeatedly said that the food aid is not linked to the deal. Well, this will now be tested in spades. Is the US going to continue to ship food post-launch? Or will it acknowledge that they are linked? Or will it simply cite the North Koreans and say “we’re sorry, they linked them!” The answer to this was not long in coming; in her press conference of March 16, Victoria Nuland confirmed that they were linked and that the missile launch calls all aspects of the deal into question.

So much for the legalese. There are implications not only for policy in the immediate term, but for our basic assessment of the North Korea regime as well.

With respect to the former, as always with the North Koreans, it is not about the facts; it is what to do about them. All of the political optics argue for shutting down the deal. The Republicans will have a field day with the administration if it were to do ahead with implementation of the deal and Secretary Clinton has issued the appropriately worded statement. The Chinese, predictably, have been their passive-aggressive selves.  News on The South Korean, Japanese, and Russian reactions are available as well.

But the missile launch announcement raises a more fundamental issue of who is making decisions in Pyongyang and how they are being made.  We interpreted the 29 February deal as a positive development demonstrating that someone was in charge and that there first move was a conciliatory, even concessionary agreement. To reach that agreement and then to scuttle it before any benefits were derived would be buyer’s remorse in the extreme if not flat-out irrational. So what is going on?  There are multiple possibilities, we will close with three.

The simplest is whoever made the 29 February deal got too far out in front and has been reined in or bowed to pressure to renege by other regime stakeholders.  With respect to most political systems, this might be the most plausible explanation coming out of the box. But we are dubious that North Korean politics can be understood with standard interest group models.

A second alternative is that Kim Jong-un is an inexperienced 28 year-old autocrat. His advisors went through the legalese and explained to him that they could sell the event as a satellite, not missile, launch and stay within the letter of the agreement.  What they did not tell him and they may well not understand themselves, is that this interpretation will not fly in the US during an election year. They may have announced this intended action not understanding that it would have the effect of dooming the agreement. In some ways this is actually the more disturbing interpretation in that it brings back into play concerns about Kim Jong-un’s capacity to govern.

A third and final possibility, however, is that Kim Jong Un is like his father. He fully knew what he was doing, prioritized the domestic payoffs and rolled the dice. If the deal falls through, so what?

So where does this leave us? Of  course, we could scuttle the deal and try to take the launch back to the UN if it in fact transpires. Another  possibility would be a different form of “strategic patience”: institute our own “freeze on the freeze,” but with the ever-stated willingness to come back to the table when the North Koreans get serious—or figure out the full implications of their actions.

Any better ideas out there?