Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Missiles, oh my!

North Korea's pronouncement that it will launch a satellite to celebrate the centennial of Kim Il Sung's birth has thrown the world into dismay. The thinly veiled decision to test its ballistic missile was even more shocking because Pyongyang had agreed to a missile test moratorium not a month before.

The timing could not have been worse for US foreign policymakers: the domestic situation in the US is fragile, weakening the resolve of Washington's close allies, while the ongoing crises in Syria and Iran continue to vie for Washington's attention. The "Leap-day Deal," the result of a year long negotiation, could have been President Obama's sole diplomatic accomplishment with humanitarian assistance rolling in (albeit late) behind IAEA inspectors and the ground works for restarting the Six-party Talks. Instead, the president's trip to Seoul for the nuclear summit was completely sullied by the foretold provocation.

So what has been the general talk on the whole crisis?

North Korea appears surprised by all the international condemnation, claiming that the launch will be for peaceful, scientific purposes. In November of 2011, Pyongyang published a white paper titled “Space Is Common Wealth of Humankind” where it claimed that space "serves as a powerful engine propelling the future development of science and technology as well as economy" and criticizing the US for "spurr[ing] the scenario for converting the space into the theatre of a war for realizing its strategy for world domination." This should have been read as a possible sign of North Korea's intent to test its ballistic missile capabilities under the guise of a satellite launch as it did in 2009.

This may have been disregarded because Washington probably assumed that Pyongyang knew that a satellite launch violates UN Security Council Resolution 1874 which banned the North Koreans from conducting anything involving their ballistic missile technology. Perhaps it should have been made more explicit.

Stephen Haggard summarized several legal issues surrounding North Korea's satellite launch and possible rationale behind Pyongyang's actions. Here are three hypotheses that he presents in why Pyongyang backed away from the deal.

  • That the February 29 deal was effectively vetoed by powerful groups in the military or elsewhere; 
  • That it’s all about inexperience; Kim Jung Un was sold a bill of goods by advisors who thought they could exploit the missile-satellite issue and get away with it; 
  • That this was completely calculated; Kim Jong Un knew the risks but rolled the dice in an effort to have it both ways (domestic political benefits of the launch plus substantive benefits of the deal). 

With the launch most assuredly moving forward, the question now is how to move forward in this time of uncertainty.

President Obama's first plan was to rally support from the Chinese. However, despite his tacit support against the launch, Hu Jintao will probably not move to really antagonize North Korea.

Both Japan and South Korea have announced that they will intercept the rocket if it strays from its expected trajectory. Those are very serious claims considering the well-known prowess of North Korean rocket scientists in keeping their rockets in the air much less in a pre-calculated trajectory. It's good that the US government has not said anything about intercepting or striking the rocket while still on the launch pad.

The approach that appears most amenable is reengagement using assistance and economic development as carrots. Professor Michael Mazzar suggests
[A] new strategy using the twin forces — markets and information — to alter the system. The fundamental U.S. goals would be peace, stability and a gradual process of reform and evolution in the North that could eventually change the character of the regime. Unlike traditional proposals for engagement, this approach would not try to use trade and economic benefits to change the North's behavior. Instead, it would use targeted direct foreign investment, people-to-people contacts, training programs for North Korean technocrats and more to accelerate the rise of alternative power centers in the North. 
This is the safest plan for moving forward. I asserted before that leaving the North Korean masses to starve will negatively impact the long-term interests of the US. Other analysts also support the idea of proactively supporting the North Korean people to better prepare the US for North Korea's collapse. Some even consider aid to be a step towards taking down the regime. Gordon Chang believes that
Food aid, if properly monitored, can further erode regime controls on information. Foreign food monitors, present in the country to ensure no diversion of aid, give the North Korean people an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby learn the truth about their own society and the outside world. Moreover, the presence of the monitors tests the limits of the state’s ability. There are simply not enough local minders to watch over foreign workers, doctors, and monitors. In fact, there has been unsupervised contact between foreign food monitors and North Koreans. 
There is clearly a compelling argument for continuing engagement with the North Koreans through humanitarian assistance. For its part, Pyongyang is willing to continue negotiations and have not rescinded its invitation of IAEA inspectors in the face of Washington halting the delivery aid.

The point is that there are plenty of reasons why North Korea remains antagonistic; one cannot expect two nations to build trust without first establishing diplomatic relations nor negotiate over demilitarization without a peace treaty. It's time that Washington stops allowing Pyongyang to surprise it and instead surprise the North Koreans. America needs a peace offensive.

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