Shortly before the death of Kim Jong il last December, North Korea and the U.S. made progress toward a deal on nuclear and missile testing. Ostensibly, Pyongyang agreed to halt nuclear tests and experiments and missile launches and allow the return of IAEA officials, in exchange for food and other humanitarian assistance and the possibility of improving North Korean-American relations. Kim's death put the deal on hold, while the country mourned and Kim's son began the process of consolidating political power. In late February, once North Korea's politics started to stabilize, Washington and Pyongyang revived the deal. Before long, Team Obama proudly announced that both sides had restarted and finalized the so-called Leap Day Deal.
Unfortunately, latest news out of North Korea has given, once again, the skeptics and pessimists much fodder. This time, government spokesmen have announced that North Korea will conduct an allegedly peaceful, non-threatening satellite launch some time between April 12-16. The North Koreans claim the purpose of the launch, timed to commemorate the (100th) birth of nation founder Kim il Sung, is to collect weather data and estimate crop yields.
But the U.S. and its friends in Asia believe the launch violates the deal that was struck just a few weeks ago. Reports and satellite images apparently that the North Korea is preparing to launch something that's far less innocuous and more military-related than Pyongyang has admitted thus far. Indeed, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs Peter Lavoy reported to the U.S. House of Representative Armed Services Committee that the launch will likely violate the Leap Day Deal: "This planned launch is highly provocative because it manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability."
So while the names atop North Korea's leadership might have changed, the way Pyongyang does foreign policy likely hasn't. North Korea continues its cat and mouse routine with America. Time and again it sucks Washington into time and labor intensive diplomatic discussions, agrees to a deal, raises U.S. expectations, then eventually backs out of or cheats on the agreement. This pattern has held for the past two decades, dating back to the infamous 1994 accords, which brought heavy embarrassment to and criticism of the Clinton administration. In fact, knowing full well that it would only ratchet up the tensions even further, and giving countries more reasons to doubt and question Pyongyang's motives, last Thursday North Korea fired two short-range missiles.
In response to the April launch, the U.S. has already taken a number of steps. It has suspended efforts to recover the remains of American war dead from the Korean War, a deal that was agreed upon last October. According to Pentagon press secretary George Little: "When there are suggestions that they might launch ballistic missiles, when they make bellicose statements about South Korea and engage in actions that could be construed as provocative, we think that it's not the right time to undertake this effort."
President Obama himself has publicly stated his disapproval of the planned launch. He called on North Korea to scrap the launch and warned of severe counter-responses, which might include tighter sanction, and the risk of international condemnation and isolation.
Moreover, Washington has already suspended its food aid to North Korea. The U.S. argues that this isn't a direct response to the planned missile test but instead a reaction to the prevailing view that North Korea is unwilling to uphold its international commitments, which include, of course, the Leap Day Deal. Put simply, the U.S. just doesn't trust North Korea to match its words with deeds. According to state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: "We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite."
North Korea has announced that the satellite will travel south toward the Philippines or Indonesia. This bit of news has, understandably, alarmed American allies in the region. Let's look at a few examples.
Both Japan and South Korea have said that they might shoot down any part of the satellite/rocket that infringes on their territory. In the words of Yoon Won-shik, a vice spokesman at the South Korean Defense Ministry: "We are studying measures such as tracking and shooting down (parts) of a North Korean missile in case they stray out of their normal trajectory....We cannot help viewing (the launch) as a very reckless, provocative act" that undermines peace on the Korean peninsula."
The Philippines have protested the rocket launch to North Korean representatives in various international forums. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in agreement with recent comments from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, said the planned rocket launch violated UN resolution 1874.
As expected, Indonesia also is concerned and wants North Korea to halt its missile launch. Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Wardana has declared that Indonesia is monitoring the North Korean situation. Mahfudz Siddiq, chairman of the House of Representatives Commission I overseeing national security and a member of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), said that the SBY government “must urge North Korea...not to launch the missile....The plan itself has already raised tension in the region. I am afraid that the launch could eventually ignite new conflict."
To this point, the SBY government hasn't publicly criticized North Korea's planned launch. It has opted to use extreme caution and operate under the radar. Indonesia considers the launch a sensitive bilateral issue. It also wants the best of both worlds: it wants to have good relations with North Korea as well as with the U.S. and its Asian allies. Additionally, the SBY government clearly wants policy flexibility, which would be limited by deliberately choosing sides in public. We should also keep in mind that Indonesia see itself as a mediator and not a participant in this dispute, which suggests that the SBY administration is looking to remain above or outside of the fray.
Perhaps most significantly, China, North Korea's primary political, diplomatic and economic sponsor, is concerned. China has discussed the situation with North Korea's ambassador in March. And it has called on all parties to demonstrate "cool and restraint." China has long argued that the extent of its leverage over Pyongyang has been overstated in the West, mostly to duck putting much pressure on its client and neighbor out of fear of destabilizing the entire North Korean political system. Maybe Beijing more fully realizes, at least in this case, that sometimes some pressure is needed to push North Korea into acting in ways that are consistent with existing international rules and norms.
Unsurprisingly, the responses and reactions have upset North Korea. Surely, Pyongyang must be unnerved by the criticisms, protests, and warnings made by the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. And we know that Pyongyang is bothered by America's words and actions. North Korea has called Obama's words confrontational. North Korea's news agency KCNA called America's move to suspend food aid an overreaction, one that has "gone beyond the limit." North Korea argues that Washington promised not to link political and strategic issues with humanitarian issues, which is what it believes America is now doing by suspending food aid. North Korean officials claim that the suspension of food aid nullifies the Leap Day Deal, "as it is a violation of the core articles of the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement." Interestingly, North Korea also insists the deal "does not include satellite launches for peaceful purposes."
How will this play out? Certainly, North Korea could be bluffing and decide not to go ahead with the launch. For that to happen, though, Washington will need to devise a way for Kim Jong Un to save face. It could happen. But it will take intensive diplomatic discussions with North Korea, which means that the U.S. needs access to the reclusive government in Pyongyang--either directly or perhaps via an interlocutor like China. And it will require young Kim and his military coterie to exhibit some policy flexibility.
But if North Korea proceeds with the launch, it will be important to observe the responses of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and the U.S. Will Asian countries really mobilize their defenses and shoot down a rocket over their airspace? Will the U.S. push for a UN resolution condemning the launch? Will Team Obama look to place tighter, stronger international sanctions on North Korea? And if these things happen, what does North Korea do? Does it lash out militarily again? What America and its allies must keep in mind is that assertive responses to North Korea, while understandable, does run the great risk of re-running the cat and mouse game, escalating the dispute, even putting the entire region on the brink of war.
Instead, at least for now, it's probably better if Washington and its friends in Asia do not focus and obsess on the types of punitive measures to be applied on North Korea. They ought to treat the launch with caution, monitor it, and treat it for it is: a provocative act that could be much worse. Hint: think nuclear tests. The best route is not to give the launch massive headlines and escalate the situation but to downplay it. There's no need to add fuel to the steady fire that is contemporary nuclear and Korean politics. As long as it seems relatively harmless, let North Korea lash out for the moment. Let Kim have his day, which can legitimize him and help to stabilize North Korean politics. This can be a very good thing, on a number of levels.
Overall, this approach makes it harder for North Korea's military to argue that foreign enemies are out to get them; can undermine the military's hardline policy orientation; and maybe even over time disempower the hardliners. This approach, along with dialog, some reason, and a dash of luck, could subtlely lead North Korea to search for new, perhaps better and more peaceful and less confrontational, ways to deal with their neighbors and the West.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that countries not secure themselves or deprioritize national defense. And it will be tough for proximate countries like Japan and South Korea to downplay the launch, especially because they have sour relations with North Korea. The U.S. will have a tough time doing this as well. It's election season. In any crisis, but especially now, Obama will want to show that he's not weak on national security, and he will face incentives and pressures to take strong measures against Pyongyang. If North Korea ramps up its aggressiveness and bellicosity, then, without a doubt, it's time to reassess and perhaps plot out a new strategy. But we're not there yet. So in the meantime, everyone should calm down, relax, and exercise prudence.
*Please note: a version of this blog post has been published by Strategic Review. You can find the article here.