(John Larkin, “Asia 360: News in Context” 30 March 2012) To the outside world, North Korea’s latest diplomatic provocation is a puzzling reversal, to say the least. As a by-product of Pyongyang’s ruthless pursuit of regime survival however, it just might make perfect sense.
Less than three weeks after signing a deal with the United States to suspend nuclear and missile programmes, Pyongyang put the pact at risk by announcing a plan to launch a satellite that most observers believe amounts to a missile in the making.
Under the February 29 deal, Pyongyang agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and long-range missile tests, as well as allow inspections of nuclear facilities, in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid over the next year. Assuming the launch goes ahead, that deal appears to be a dead letter. Why would Pyongyang agree to freeze its weapons programmes in return for a mountain of food aid, only to deliberately wreck the pact within days?
“It doesn’t sound logical or consistent,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at Sydney University. “But North Korea has its own logic.” Driving Pyongyang’s logic is the paramount importance of regime survival. Faced with the choice of feeding its hungry people or flexing a new military muscle to bolster domestic support, Pyongyang will opt for the latter every time, say North Korea watchers.
The launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite is scheduled to happen between April 12 and April 16 — during mass festivities to commemorate the centenary of North Korea’s revered founder Kim Il-sung. Pyongyang claims the satellite is a peaceful initiative justified under the Outer Space Treaty, which codifies the use of space under international law.
The rest of the world, even its ally China, believes the ballistic technology can also be used for missile development and therefore violates two UN Security Council resolutions. All of North Korea’s major neighbours, and the UN, have denounced the launch plan. But Pyongyang has some good reasons to ignore the outrage.
North Korea’s leadership has promised that 2012 will be the year the nation emerges as kangsongdaeguk: strong and mighty. Kim Jong-un is under pressure to deliver appropriate fireworks on April 15. He plans to spend US$2 billion, a third of North Korea’s total annual budget, on the centennial celebrations, according to an estimate published by South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
“This is like a holy day in North Korea, a day to celebrate a strong and mighty nation,” says Kongdan Oh, an East Asia specialist at the Institute for Defence Analyses in Washington. “What better way to do that than launch a rocket using ballistic technology?”
Pyongyang looks willing to sacrifice a closer relationship with the US, supposedly one of its top foreign policy goals, at the altar of regime security. “US relations can wait five, or even 10 years,” says Petrov. The question is whether Pyongyang’s volte-face was premeditated. If it was, says Petrov, the calculus may have been to hope that the US takes the line that humanitarian assistance is apolitical, and delivers the food aid anyway.
Even if Washington retracts the food aid, Pyongyang can revert to its time-honoured tactic of accusing the US of pursuing a hostile policy, then blame it for the inevitable escalation in security tensions. Adding credence to this view is the nature of the food aid. The brains at Pyongyang probably calculate that it would not lose much as the aid comprises mostly high-nutrition biscuits destined for women and children rather than the Korean People Army — a crucial support pillar for the regime.
Symbolism matters in Pyongyang. While a satellite launch will not put food into bellies, it will help to bracket the younger Kim with his grandfather Kim Il Sung, thereby sanctifying his stewardship. The satellite’s name, Kwangmyongsong, means right shining star, an oft-employed euphemism for the elder Kim. “There’s a lot of symbolism to this launch,” said Petrov of Sydney University. “Mysticism is an important part of this as it will distract people from the realities of their harsh lives.”
One intriguing theory is that the sudden back-pedalling from the conciliatory food aid agreement reflects fractures within Pyongyang’s ruling echelon, with hardliners vetoing reformists who framed the February 29 deal. “The situation then appears to be two different groups of elites, with two different intentions,” Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea specialist at Ulsan University in South Korea, wrote recently in the Pyongyang-watching blog 38 North.
But with Pyongyang’s machinations and motives as opaque as ever, the real question is how the US and, possibly, the UN Security Council will react to this latest affront. Pyongyang’s decision to launch from the west coast rather than the eastern pad used in two previous failed launches, means the rocket is not likely to fly over Japan. This might be enough to prevent a UN Security Council sanction.
“I don’t think that they will face any significant penalties,” said Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “While the Chinese are reportedly displeased, it’s hard to imagine them implementing tougher sanctions.” Perhaps the clearest takeaway from this morass of conflicting agendas is the difficulty of negotiating with a nation that refuses to abide by the traditional norms of diplomacy.
Yet again, the US finds itself snookered by Pyongyang. If it delivers the food aid as promised, it will stand accused of caving in to ballistic blackmail. Yet if it withdraws the aid, Pyongyang will happily pocket another win, using Washington’s “hostile” policy to justify its continued possession of missile and nuclear weaponry.
As world leaders gathered in Seoul for a summit on nuclear security this week, North Korea insisted that it would go ahead with the launch, calling it “a legitimate right of a sovereign state”. European Union leaders expressed “grave concern” at North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes, and urged Pyongyang to scrap the launch. Japan also used the summit to call on Pyongyang to show restraint.
Washington’s next step will be crucial to determining how the imbroglio will play out. Most analysts expect it to retract food aid, which could hand the initiative to Pyongyang.
North Korea could conceivably invite nuclear inspectors into the country, then kick them out on the basis the US did not provide promised food assistance, said Victor Cha, a senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It would be hogwash, but all of a sudden we’d look like the bad guys,” said Cha. “How did we get ourselves into this situation?”