Hopefully More than an Inch: Weekly Digest

By | April 19, 2012 | 14 Comments

If it has yet to be done, April should be commemorated as international missile test month for the year 2012. A couple of days before and just a few more after Kim Jong Un’s speech (full English text) to the people of the DPRK during his grandfather’s centennial celebration, three states, two nuclear, test-fired missiles with the intent of enhancing their external security. On Friday of last week, North Korea unsuccessfully launched the unpopular Unha 3 rocket (failure which was strangely acknowledged by the North); the North’s defiant launch may have provided the necessary impetus for South Korea to show a video of missiles of its own that “can hit any target in [the] North” being test fired. While attention was focused on the peninsula, India snuck in the launch of its Agni-V missile, which reportedly shows India’s capability of hitting Beijing. Some in North Korea may be gawking at the US response, wondering: Why does India get away with it? And North Koreans are not the only ones.

All of this missile launching has certainly overshadowed the shuffling of personal within the highest ranks of the North Korean military and party apparatuses, including the Fifth Session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, during which Kim Jong Un was appointed to the position of First Chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Needless to say, more happens in this part of the world in a few days than can be covered in one post. We focus in this digest on why the Leap Day Agreement broke down and the trade-off between launching missiles and feeding people. – S.C. Denney, Assistant Editor

US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta | Photo Courtesy of AP

Hopefully More than an Inch: Weekly Digest

by Steven Denney

He Said What? | While Kim Jong-un has been speaking of North Korea as a strong and prosperous nation, US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is talking about how the US is “within an inch of war almost every day” in Northeast Asia. Given that North Korea has announced its decision to abandon the February 29 “Leap Day Agreement”, tension is set, once again, to rise. And if 2009 is any guide, we know what to expect.

Minus a complete breakdown in negotiations and the closing of Panetta’s “inch,” it is important to understand why the negotiations broke down in the first place and how the US can learn from the latest breakdown in negotiations with the DPRK. CFR’s Scott Synder helps in this regard.

The Snyder Paradigm | In a testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Scott Snyder argues that the use of “carrots and sticks” as should be replaced by a new strategy that focuses on shaping North Korea’s strategic environment. He also identifies two major failures of the Obama administration’s failed February 29 “Leap Day Agreement.”

Here are some notable quotes from Synder’s testimony:

  • “Pyongyang is likely to use the UN President’s Statement to justify a third North Korea nuclear test.”
  • “[Synder] believe[s]” in retrospect that “it was a mistake to announce an agreement before the political situation in Pyongyang was fully consolidated, even if it was an understanding that had been negotiated prior to Kim Jong-il’s death. The result is a setback for U.S.-DPRK relations.”
  • “The Obama administration failed to capitalize on its initial efforts to shape North Korea’s strategic environment” following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1874. This has emboldened the leadership in Beijing and has lead to “China’s rediscovery of a strategic element in its relations with North Korea…” As a result, it has become “more difficult to shape North Korea’s environment so as to induce North Korea to shift away from reliance on a nuclear weapons capability.”
  • “External pressure and sanctions will not prevent North Korea form getting the resources that it needs from China.”

In response to the failure of the February 29 “Leap Day Agreement,” Snyder emphasizes two major mistakes committed by the Obama administration:

  1. “[I]t was a mistake to allow food aid to be brought directly into the negotiations a quid pro quo for North Korea actions, and referring to such U.S. assistance as evidence of non-hostility.” This has resulted in a most undesirable situation of linkage between food aid and politics. Thus, due to the linkage, the North Koreans are likely to accuse the US of hostile action because food aid is not delivered.
  2. Once the US decided to act unilaterally with North Korea, “there should have been an effort to remove ambiguity from the U.S. statement to the extent possible.” More specifically, “the United States should have been more explicit that ‘long-range missiles’ also include satellites.” This is, as Jeffery Lewis pointed out, the “loop hole big enough to fly a Taepodong missile through.”

The last few pages of Synder’s testimony include his suggestion for an alternative approach to altering North Korean behavior. He advises that Washington abandon the conventional strategy of applying “carrots and sticks” and focus instead on shaping North Korea’s strategic environment. This, then, will require the US to move away from using direct negotiations as a primary mechanism through which to affect North Korean behavior and adopt instead an approach that focuses on “coordination among allies, cooperation with but not dependency on China, exploitation of North Korea’s partial dependence on external economic support, and a willingness to make North Korea’s denuclearization a top-rank foreign policy priority over a sustained period of time.” The key point here is that North Korea’s behavioral change will not be a product of negotiation, but rather of the regime’s own changed calculus based on its internal circumstances” [emphasis added]. For Synder, the best way to change the North’s behavior is to have them do it – put the ball squarely in their court, so-to-speak.

Military-Economics Trade-off? | Andray Abrahamian, in an article published before the missile launch, makes a few points worth jotting down for further discussion and analysis. As he discussed in an earlier article, Abrahamian argues that the satellite missile launch indicates the strong domestic influence of hardliners within North Korea, who perhaps won out of over engagement-friendly soft liners. If true, he suggests that the satellite missile test was “not about us,” and instead was about a domestic political struggle between hard and soft liners. Abrahamian touches on a subject discussed by Yonsei Professor Moon Chung-in in his SinoNK Roundtable response that now, perhaps more than any time before, there is a discernible trade-off between continuing the sogun policy and appeasing the people by fostering economic growth.

Stephan Haggard gives a short historical overview of North Korea’s disappointing post-Cold War economic development in his recent FP piece that should be read along side Abrahamian’s. Haggard’s list of “what-ifs” reminds readers that the poor economic and social conditions that now define North Korea as a regional and global pariah are a consequence of missed opportunities and poor policy decisions. In other words: It could have been better. With a hat tip to Abrahamian and Moon, the theme that runs throughout Haggard’s piece is that there is a clear trade-off between promoting macho-militarism and developing the domestic economy for the welfare of the people. Regrettably, for the people, the North Korean elite has chosen to emphasize the former. As a result, North Korea has nukes, but unfortunately its people are not eating. Haggard’s close colleague, Marcus Noland, in this interview from the East-West Center, elaborates on the economic costs behind the missile launch.

SinoNK’s own Adam Cathcart gets historical as well. In his piece for FP entitled “Not-So-Great-Expectations,” Cathcart shows how the modern, nation-state manifestation of Dickens well-known novel reflects the absence of a Joe Gargery for the North Korean people.

Investors See More than an Inch | If Kim Jong-un and the regime were disappointed that the satellite missile launch failed shortly after lift-off, investors were not. According to a Bloomberg report, “South Korean stocks and the won rose today after Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said the rocket flew for more than a minute and fell into the sea.” Furthermore, despite the North’s rocket launch, Moody’s credit rating service “did not alter Seoul’s A1 ‘positive’ sovereign credit rating position.” Investors apparently do not look to the US Defense Department and Panetta for investment advice.

Losing its Only Ally? | This week, the Yomiuri Shimbun, the most widely read newspaper in Japan, reported that “The Chinese government has suspended deporting North Korean defectors in accordance with a request from the South Korean government.” The story was picked up by the AFP, but it has not been widely reported by major English language media outlets. The article goes on to explain that since “North Korea kept China in the dark about the details about its missile launch plan,” North Korea “has not been considerate” of its Chinese ally, according to a source working for Chinese authorities. A different Chinese source seemed to voice genuine concern about the precarious situation of the North Korean refugees (or economic migrants according to Chinese law) by admitting that, “The defectors would lose their lives if they are sent back. We can’t overlook this.” One of the Chinese officials cited in the article is reportedly from Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea, while the other official’s position and location were not given.

Brian Gleason contributed from Seoul.

14 Comments

  1. in retrospect that “it was a mistake to announce an agreement before the political situation in Pyongyang was fully consolidated, even if it was an understanding that had been negotiated prior to Kim Jong-il’s death.

    In retrospect – maybe. But it was worth a try, in my view. Shaping the environment rather than focusing on the negotiation process can still be done. One more setback hardly makes a difference. Wasn’t Snyder any more precise in his advice of how to create an environment that could help progress?

    I’m wondering anyway if North Korea is really that much a headache for Washington, or if it isn’t rather an advantage, in that it reveals China’s lack of influence on one of its few “allies”, and in that it seems to bring most countries in the region closer to the U.S.. If that should be so, a willingness to make North Korea’s denuclearization a top-rank foreign policy priority over a sustained period of time probably doesn’t exist. Rather, the Obama administration would put the ball firmly into China’s court.

    In the end, China has more to fear from North Korean nuclear power, than America. Beijing may not produce a solution yet, but I’m sure they will before Pyongyang gets out of control. And whatever the outcome of that, it will again create more headaches for Beijing, than for Washington.

  2. North Korean nukes are not the reason why those countries are drawn closer to the US, it is China’s perceived “aggressiveness” that is. Without North Korean nukes or the North Korean state for that matter, those countries will still be aligning themselves with the US, because of China. So I don’t see why North Korean nukes are a bigger headache for Beijing than for Washington.

  3. Either way, it could make sense for four out of the six negotiating governments (Seoul, Washington, Moscow, Tokyo) to simply leave the process for now – plus their phone number, just in case that Pyongyang should be available for more serious talks sometime later. I believe that there is one bottomline: if Beijing doesn’t mind North Korea becoming a nuclear power (they probably do), or if they don’t oppose Pyongyang’s progress to that goal to a sufficient degree, North Korea will be a nuclear power indeed, and I see nothing that could be done about it.

    My hunches seem to tell me that they would leave the talks, if that could be sold to the public, especially in Japan and South Korea.

  4. North Korea is already a nuclear state, a fact that people need to accept, no matter how hard it is. My understanding of the purpose of the 6-party talks is not to prevent North Korean from being a nuclear power (which it is already), but to DEnuclearize North Korea (persuading it to give up its nukes and nuclear program altogether).

    Short of pulling the plug completely which China cannot afford to do, China has very little influence over North Korea. They launched their satellite/missile to China’s chagrin, they didn’t even notify the Chinese before hand. Both China and North Korea understand that China is no more than a hostage, and until there are revolutionary changes (for example, Beijing makes a deal with Seoul to support Seoul-led reunification in exchange for certain things like Mr. Lankov mentioned) happening, China can’t stop the North Koreans from doing anything.

    In the interim, before North Korea is denuclearized, South Korea and Japan will need to deal with the fact that North Korea is a nuclear power already and weigh their options. Either build their own nukes or secure assurance from Washington.

  5. I think the term nuclear power needs more definition. Is everyone who occasionally hits the ball a soccer player?

  6. Just wanted to mention to you JR and you JCM and to the stalwart author of this essay that I am enjoying this thread very much; thanks!

  7. Well, perhaps “nuclear state” is a better description. North Korea might still have pretty crude delivery systems, but my understanding is they can easily hit countries like South Korea, Japan, China etc. with their existing missiles. And I have every faith they will be able to make their nukes small enough to fit into one of those Daepodong missiles. There you go.

  8. I have every “faith” that any state that wants to become nuclear and that basks in the shadow of a big-enough ally will get this done. Nuclear non-proliferation won’t last for another four decades, neither technically nor legally. But a potential soccer player is still no existing soccer player.

  9. Not understanding what you are trying to say, justrecently. What’s the point of arguing about semantics when North Korea’s clearly possesses nukes? Is Pakistan a nuclear state? Is Israel a nuclear state? What makes you think that qualifies someone as a “nuclear power”?

  10. What makes you think that qualifies someone as a “nuclear power”?

    The ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to its destination – at least at short-range.

  11. Based on my understanding of North Korea’s current technological capabilities, I’d say they can hit South Korea, Japan and China easily with their exisiting missiles. Of course, my faith and speculations aside, I don’t know for sure if they have made their nukes small enough to fit in one of those yet.

  12. That’s where it becomes speculation – and I don’t think that these details are semantics in any status discussion, neither when it’s about Iran, nor when it’s about North Korea. The answer to such questions frequently depends on the interests of the people you ask. That’s important, because the answer co-shapes (if not defines) the policies of the countries involved. The arguments before the latest Iraq war – in a more general WMD context – provide a pretty recent didactic play for that.

  13. OK, North Korea is neither a nuclear power or nuclear state. North Korea is a country that allegedly has a nuclear program and is believed to have successfully developed a few nukes.

    Exactly. All the fuss over North Korea’s alleged nukes is unwarranted. They are not even a player yet.

  14. It is a government which claims to have conducted successful nuclear tests, and which conducts missile tests. Nothing to take lightly. I suppose I’ll yet have to meet another contemporary who calls that an unwarranted fuss.

    However, the one party out of the six involved however who’d be most shocked if the outside world came to that conclusion would be the North Korean government itself.

    Hence my hunches described further above.

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