Nothing Flying But a Satellite: Weekly Digest

By | March 23, 2012 | No Comments

No sooner had the “first step” been taken towards substantive nuclear talks (and implicitly towards re-starting the stalled Six Party Talks), than North Korea seems to have lost its footing and slipped up, putting in jeopardy the February 29th “Leap Day” agreement, including 240,000 metric tons of aid, by announcing its intention to launch a “working” satellite to mark the centenary of its founder Kim Il-sung.  Or did they?  The launch is at the core of this Weekly Digest, but orbiting around the launch are a host of charged issues like the politicization of refugees, China’s asymmetric relationship with the Korean peninsula and the so-called “North Korea Pivot.”   – S.C. Denney

Weekly Digest

by Steven Denney

Now What?  Post-Launch Announcement Analysis |  Park Chan-bong, a policy adviser in South Korea’s ruling New Frontier Party (새누리당) and former negotiator with North Korea, commented in a recent conversation on the question of the Chinese response to the satellite announcement.  According to Park, China has two basic options open to it:  1.  Pressure North Korea into forgoing the launch.  2.  Give diplomatic support to North Korea after the launch.   Mr. Park also commented in this recent WSJ piece by Evan Ramstad about the satellite launch.

Ralph A. Cossa

Given the fact that North Korea has been planning the action for months, according to this article in the Chosun Ilbo, option 1 may not be pursued.  Given also is, in the event of a launch, China’s pursuit of Park’s “option 2.”  After all, the underlying dynamics of Sino-North Korean relations, Northeast Asia’s version of the “special relationship,” is no secret.

“Now What?” asks Ralph Cossa in his response to the satellite launch announcement.  Aside from taking obligatory jabs at North Korea experts — “an oxymoron if [Cossa’s] ever heard of one” — his primary focus is the role of China on the Korean peninsula.  Cossa emphasizes China’s role as accomplice and enabler in North Korea’s provocative behavior.  He, therefore, suggests that Beijing enforce UN Security Council resolutions:

It’s time for Beijing to stop empowering the North. At a minimum, it should state unequivocally that any launch would be a violation of UNSC resolutions and would open the North up to new sanctions. (Enforcing current mandatory sanctions would also be a nice gesture.)

Cossa also draws attention to the fact that this impending launch, compared to the 2009 launch announcement, has even drawn expressions of “serious concern” from the Russians.  This Dong-A Ilbo article, however, indicates, that this assertion may not be entirely accurate.  Consider the South Korean paper’s alternative view of China’s response and stance on the launch announcement:

An expert in Beijing said, ‘Chinese authorities didn’t call in the North Korean ambassador when the North announced its two previous satellite launches,’ adding, ‘It means that China perceives the planned launch as a grave incident, and that Pyongyang held no prior consultations with Beijing whatsoever.’

China’s move is also seen as a warning against North Korea, whose surprise act came at a time when a fresh mood was to be established on the Korean Peninsula in the wake of China’s provision of aid to the North, and a North Korean-U.S. agreement on food aid to the Stalinist country.

As Cossa and others have pointed out, North Korea is attempting to de-couple the issue of its recent pledge to no missile launches and the announcement to launch a satellite.  The two issues are, according to Ri Yong-ho, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, “two different issues,” because “the satellite launch is in the category of peaceful development of space.”

Whether or not the satellite is actually for the peaceful development of space (and not to boost Jim Jong-un’s domestic repute and international clout) is certainly debatable.  One thing that does appear clear, though, is that North Korea has been planning the launch for sometime:  “Long and carefully planned,” according to this Chonsun Ilbo article.

Even if carefully planned, the move by North Korea has left many North Korea watchers slightly perplexed.  “This doesn’t make sense in the standard North Korean playbook,” states John Delury in a LA Times article.

As an interesting way to continue to engage North Korea, today at the Asan Insistute’s “What Does North Korea Want” forum on Thursday in Seoul, Scott Synder offered up the idea that a “3rd Party Could Offer North Korea a ‘Launch Package,’” as Chris Green notes at the DailyNK.

Politicizing Refugees and Dependency Effects |  Arms control and human rights issues also remain entwined, as Scott Synder’s recent article notes. North Korean refugees, in other words, might be a hindrance to denuclearization talks by creating tension between South Korea and China.  “Although it has returned to public eye,” Snyder writes of the the issue of refugees, “there is nothing new about these circumstances, which have been standard operating procedure between China and the DPRK for well over a decade….” The recent re-politicization of the issue, however, has caused tension to flare up between China and the ROK.

Human right activists rally in Seoul to show support for defectors captured in China. Credit: Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press

The political thorniness of the refugee issue is heightened by China’s ability to get other countries to do what it wants, particularly countries highly dependent on trade with China.  Large countries utilizing asymmetric trading relationships with smaller countries to achieve political goals is something that I have written about before and is the central topic of this article by Shim Jae Hoon.  According to Hoon, asymmetric trade with China “while economically beneficial to Seoul … puts the Lee Myung Bak administration on the political defensive at home.”  Regarding the issue of defectors, China’s “warning” that South Korea not politicize the issue is, Hoon’s reading, reminiscent of “Old Imperial China lording over hapless Koreans.”

Despite Korea’s economic dependence on China, and China’s sway over internal politics within North Korea, Yonsei University professor Lee Jung-hoon argues in the Korea Herald that defector issues “shouldn’t be skirted in any way just because [Korea] is afraid that it might have a negative implication for … trade relations, economic or other political relations with China.”  He calls such moves “cowardly.”  Professor Hoon also highlights the National Assembly’s failure to ratify the North Korea Human Rights Act “as one egregious example of inaction.”

North Korea’s “Pivot” |  Writing before the satellite launch announcement, John Feffer at the Asia Times indicated that North Korea may be making a pivot of its own away from China and towards the United States.  Feffer quotes former US State Department official Joel Wit and his characterization of North Korea’s “perennial push-pull relationship with China:”

‘The North Koreans feel that they’ve become very close to China over the past few years because of the US policy of ‘strategic patience’, which has forced them into the Chinese arms,” Wit continued. ‘But the North Koreans aren’t comfortable with that. They’re trying to create some distance with the Chinese, using the United States as a balancer.’

How a satellite launch would affect this effort is unknown.  Certainly Evans Revere’s essay “There They Go Again,” in which the Brookings Institution scholar describes his experience of Pyongyang’s emergent hardline on the launching issue on December 15, 2011, does not give much indication of an incipient North Korean embrace of the US.  Regardless, it does seem that North Korea is, once again, “testing the threshold with Washington.”

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  1. Cossa and others quoted in the above post addressed only the American (or South Korean) perspectives in terms of wanting China to reign in North Korea. It would be nice if they had argued how adopting the measures proposed will help advance China’s interests from China’s perspectives. Sure, China cares about stability, stability and stability on the Korean peninsula, what the North Koreans are doing irrates the Chinese; but it is simply unimaginable, at least to me that China would disregard its “special relationship” with North Korea to embrace something a lot tougher, just like I don’t see the US could adopt a tougher line against Israel.

  2. Essentially what those American and particularly South Korean writers such as Shim Jae Hoon are arguing is that China should completely disregard its national interests vis-a-vis North Korea; China’s geopolitical concerns should be dismissed and it should closely align itself to the interests of South Korea and those of the US. Only by doing that China will be regarded as “a responsible guardian of international order”.

    Some logic, huh?

  3. The analysis above is admittedly rather anglo-centric, or pro-Western. At the ASAN conference mentioned above, perhaps one of the more “interesting” speeches made came from Georgy Toloraya, a former Soviet diplomat, who has a distinctively different view of North Korea and favors an approach to engagement and negotiation different from many of his Western and South Korean counterparts (see this article at 38 North, following the sinking of the Cheonan, for one example). If I can summarize in a few bullet points what Toloraya said at the conference, it would go as follows:

    1. The US knew North Korea’s intention to launch a satellite before starting negotiations; why, then, try to stop it? It created a situation which the US (and others) now find themselves in.
    2. If one looks at the launch details, it becomes clear that no country is at risk in the event of a satellite launch; it will be flying south over the South China Sea — not, like in 2009, over Japan.
    3. Engage North Korea on its space program. In an effort similar to what Synder proposed, international actors should assit North Korea in its satellite and space-related programs; in particular, they should help N. Korea commercialize it, so money can be made.
    4. The notion that North Korea can be held to international standards and agreements is a non-starter. North Korea doesn’t care about UN resolutions (esp. 1784 and others); if you press them into a corner, they’ll simply walk away.

    There is a noticeable dichotomy between people like Toloraya and Cossa. Cossa and others insist that the international community hold the DPRK accountable to international standards, whereas Toloraya and others ask: what do international standards mean to North Korea?

  4. Thanks Steven for a breath of fresh air.

    IMHO, to the North Koreans “international standards” are simply a mechanism deployed by the US-led west and their allies (such as South Korea) to deprive the North Koreans of their abilities to defend themselves and their legitimate needs to advance technologically (i.e. the ballistic missile and space program). They must be asking: Why is that we can’t have what you have?

  5. Never thought of that US-Israel to PRC-DPRK comparison, but I think there’s something to it. (Of course, there was also a huge book comparing Korean War to the Illiad which was a great idea, but made for a very fragmented read. I guess what I mean is that North Korea is simultaneously over-analogized and lacking the _right_ analogies.)

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