This commentary was originally posted on Arms Control Wonk on March 16, 2012 and has been reposted on 38 North with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.
I have previously noted the importance of reading very, very closely the utterances of the Great Fitzpatrick.
Another case in point: On March 15, Mark gave a talk at the Daiwa Foundation Japan House in which he “predicted trouble” over the DPRK moratorium on long-range missiles launches “because North Korea does not consider space-launch rockets to be missiles.”
Of course, today, I awake to learn that KCNA has announced the DPRK will launch a “space launch” vehicle on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
I will spare you the back and forth on whether there is any meaningful difference between a missile and a “space launch” vehicle –Mark does a wonderful job of summarizing the minute details in a blog post at the IISS Voices site. The short version is that there is no important difference from a testing standpoint. A moratorium on missile launches that includes an exception for space launches is like a moratorium on nuclear testing that permits “peaceful nuclear explosions” — pointless.
Should the Obama Administration have seen this coming? If Fitzpatrick could, why didn’t the State Department ? Why, by the way, doesn’t Fitzpatrick have a job in this Administration?
I’d like to hold off judgement on a thing like this, as someone once said, until all the facts are in. But it appears this was a pretty serious foul up.
When the US and DPRK issued statements about the resumption of talks, their competing statements of what had been agreed differed in some interesting ways. Both statements, however, used identical language relating to the moratorium: “The DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches.” (That’s the US version, but the DRPK version translates as “The DPRK… agreed to a moratorium on … long-range missile launches.”)
I went back to look at the how the Clinton Administration handled the issue of space launches during North Korea’s 1999-2003 moratorium, embodied in the 2000 Joint Communique. And there it was: “long-range missile launches of any kind.” [Emphasis added.] The details matter!
The interesting thing about the 1999-2003 moratorium was that it evolved. North Korea made a private pledge in 1999 that eventually became a written commitment in the form of the 2000 Joint Communique.
In September 1999, the DPRK privately committed to a moratorium of one sort or another. North Korea then publicly announced, ” It will not launch a missile while the talks are under way…” The Clinton Administration then attempted to secure that pledge in an agreed statement. Unfortunately, the few accounts of the missile negotiations — by Albright, Samore and Sherman (well, a long account by Michael Gordon quoting Sherman)– focus on the Albright visit to Pyongyang, which followed the 2000 Joint Communique.
Still, the evolution of “missile” into “long-range missile of any kind” is tantalizing evidence of intensive discussions about scope. I observe that US officials usually used the entire phrase in written documents. It seems clear that it meant something.
Without access to the negotiating record, it is impossible to conclude that “of any kind” referred to precisely the problem we face now, but that seems like a good bet. Regardless, why omit it now? Certainly, departing from the previous language should have thrown up red flags. I have to ask: Did the relevant officials not examine the original moratorium? Wouldn’t they have become suspicious if the North Koreans had objected to adding “of any kind”?
State Department Spokesperson Toria Nuland released a statement today that is not encouraging — she appeals to the UN Security Council Resolution as opposed to the agreed language. That’s going to get you far. What the hell? Wendy Sherman, Gary Samore andBob Einhorn are all senior US officials who were deeply involved in the details of this in 1999-2000. I am just baffled.
Sigh. So, what to do? We gave the North Koreans a loophole large enough to fly a Taepodong through and they took it. (Or at least announced their intent to take it.) The North Koreans have really made a mess here: If the Administration admits it made a mistake (fat chance), its political opponents will use that admission as a cudgel against any future agreement its negotiates anywhere in the world. On the other hand, if the Administration blames North Korea for walking away from an agreement after a few days, then the Administration will get killed in Congress over any future deal.
By the way, I observe that Kim Jong Un has made some very interesting visits of late, including to the Strategic Rocket Forces Command. If I am not mistaken, that would be the first mention of this particular organization. This is my chance to plug the excellent, North Korean Leadership Watch.
Also priceless are the description of the location of the command, as well as the exterior shots. I bet I can find this place.
Late Update | 9:40 pm PST 16 March 2012 In a press briefing today, Toria Nuland claims that the United States “made clear unequivocally that we considered that any satellite launch would be a deal-breaker.” Of course, a US diplomat can “make clear” the US position in a negotiation without securing the agreement of the other party.
Here is the relevant graf:
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, in the context of working on the Leap Day agreement, we made clear unequivocally that we considered that any satellite launch would be a deal-breaker. So on the front end, they understood that.
MS. NULAND: We were called yesterday. We were contacted through the New York channel and advised late in the afternoon yesterday that they were likely to move forward with this. Obviously, the individual who took that message was uninstructed at that time, but made very clear what he considered the implications of this to be. And then just a few hours afterwards, the statement was released by the North Korean news service, which was why we felt we had to respond almost immediately. Hence the notification you got at 4 o’clock in the morning.
So from our perspective, there shouldn’t have been any doubt in the North Koreans’ mind before this what the implications will be if they go forward.
I am still waiting to hear someone from the Obama Administration say “North Korea accepted our position that space launches are a kind of long-range missile launch.”
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