Friday, March 30, 2012

North Korean satellites and missiles: advantage hardliners



North Korea’s announcement of a satellite test planned for April has kicked up quite a fuss as governments try to decide how to respond.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it would be a ‘grave provocation’, while Japan’s cabinet secretary urged North Korea not to carry out the test, saying it was a violation of UN sanctions.

Pyongyang will argue strenuously that it is a peaceful satellite launch, legally covered by the 1966 Space Treaty to which Pyongyang signed up in 2009. It has also chosen a location in the Northwest in a move to assuage any concerns the Japanese would have over a North Korean missile flying in their direction again.

The counter will be that ballistic missile tests — which these will also be — are forbidden under UN sanctions. Moreover, it violates the spirit, and possibly the letter, of a US–DPRK agreement signed so recently the fax machines are still warm. That agreement has North Korea freezing nuclear activities at Yongbyong and suspending ‘long-range’ missile tests in return for 240,000 tons of food aid.

The initial reaction of many must have been to think this is typical North Korean deal-breaking. But North Korea hasn’t seen a single nutrition biscuit yet, so why would it do something that could very likely scupper the whole deal before it gets what it bargained for?

Many possibilities have been debated.

First, it may be that Pyongyang was negotiating with the United States as a probe with no intention of seeing the deal through. However, while there are some new personalities on both sides — by all accounts very cordial — the Obama government is now more than three years old; the Koreans are acquainted with this administration.

There is also not much logic in attempting to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Lee Myung Bak is in the twilight of his presidency. Obama is gearing up for his re-election campaign. Pressure from Pyongyang only emboldens the candidates they would rather not deal with in both countries.

Second, Pyongyang’s actions could be part of a strategy in which quickly backsliding on the deal was premeditated. In this scenario, North Korea has set a trap for the US. If food aid is apolitical, as the US claims, backing out of the deal makes the US appear disingenuous. The value of this compared to waiting for at least some of the aid first seems uncertain, especially as North Korea appears disingenuous by announcing a satellite launch so soon after inking the food aid deal.

Third, it may be that since the agreement would provide nutritional assistance not in the form of rice or other grains, Pyongyang deemed its value too low to warrant the freeze of its nuclear and missile programs. This may be the case, but then why not just reject the deal at the negotiations themselves?

Fourth, perhaps it is a case of domestic concerns trumping external ones. Symbolism is highly important to North Korea and demonstrating that it is a high-technology great power to its citizens on Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday may just be more valuable than either food aid or improved relations with the US. Perhaps an ongoing debate about whether to bolster the celebrations with a high-tech show was unresolved until just recently.

Fifth, there is a possibility that assumes a master plan: it is possible that North Korea intends to back out of the satellite launch, using the affair to further demonstrate the new government’s good intentions and reasonableness to the outside world. Making the announcement a month in advance leaves a lot of time for North Korea to back down. But, if this is the case, Pyongyang will have to use its best writers for the tricky job of explaining why they decided against such a symbolic exercise, as they made the announcement in the most public way possible on their domestic TV.

All these guesses make the mistaken assumption that North Korea is a unitary actor — a ‘one mind, one voice’ kind of government. It is not. Like any government, individuals and institutions have varying perspectives and goals. The Foreign Ministry tends to have an interest in bettering relations with the United States, while the military is less inclined to deal with its long-time enemy.

If one accepts this perspective, the most likely explanation is that the people who negotiated the deal — the Foreign Ministry — did not know the satellite/missile test was going to take place, certainly not so soon. Somewhere in the swirl of interests competing for Kim Jong Un’s graces — and vice versa — things became uncoordinated, and antagonistic points of view could not be harmonised by the maximal leader or among the regency surrounding him.

The situation then appears to be two different groups of elites, with two different intentions. One group has sent softline messages, with the ‘food for freeze’ agreement. (There were even reports this week of a North Korean suggestion to set up mutual liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang). The other has sent a hardline message, with the announcement of the rocket launch.

Ignoring the hardline message will be impossible for Obama. American policy is inevitably formed under the constraints of both domestic and international alliance politics. And US political actors operate under the constraints of a domestic hardline vs. softline spectrum. The voices calling to scrap the deal are strong already — if the test goes ahead, those voices will be overwhelming.

Some North Korea watchers have suggested the US could find a way to admit limited satellite testing is legally acceptable, perhaps while arguing for international monitoring. But this would require spending political capital Obama probably cannot afford to waste, especially in the minefield that has been US–DPRK relations. Obama would simply appear too weak if he continues with the deal.

The political need for the US to yank the nutritional supplements will be unfortunate, then, for two reasons. First, the constitution of the food aid does a pretty good job of targeting the most vulnerable North Koreans; the Korean People’s Army is not interested in baby formula. From a purely humanitarian perspective it should continue.
Second, it tells the hardliners that they can mess up any thaw in relations even with provocations that threaten relatively little. It simultaneously strips the softliners of their achievement. They end up returning to the internal debate empty handed. As such, the parameters of the US–DPRK relationship are perpetually set by hardliners.

At some point, if we are ever to find the road out of this mess, US–DPRK interactions will have to change to strip the hardliners of their influence and to follow through with the softliners.

By Andray Abrahamian Executive Director at Choson Exchange and a PhD Candidate at the Social Science College, University of Ulsan. A version of this article was first published at 38 North.

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