Why would North Korea sacrifice its long-cherished dream of improving relations with the United States for such a trivial thing as “fireworks” for a national holiday? Around the world, people are wracking their brains trying to explain this seemingly sudden “satellite launch” decision, and the theories that have emerged so far can be grouped as follows:
- The DPRK had a calculated plan: first, reach an agreement that is attractive to the United States; then do something highly provocative to raise the stakes and create crisis; and finally, after the dust settles, negotiate from a position of strength to get more. In the process, North Korea also planned to confirm its status as a nuclear power and undermine the position of South Korean conservatives.
- The decision to launch a rocket is the result of a rift between “soft-liners” and “hard-liners” in Pyongyang, in the absence of strong leadership (as President Obama said, “we don’t know, who’s calling the shots”). The North Korean negotiators did not know about the launch plan and did not discuss this issue with their American interlocutors when working out the “Leap Day” agreement.
- There are even more exotic theories that imply it was a US plot to reach an agreement that demonstrated its desire for peace, while fully understanding that a satellite launch, about the right to which North Koreans have warned, would break the deal. As a result, there would be no need to fulfill controversial US obligations (like discussing the provision of an LWR and the lifting of sanctions), and they would gain new leverage to pressure an inexperienced North Korean leader to the brink of surrender. Paradoxically, the events unfolding so far fall well into such a scenario.
I believe, however, as often happens when real-world politics are analyzed by theoreticians, that the extent to which multistage planning was involved has been exaggerated, and that the influence of chaotic factors has been largely underestimated. In all likelihood, this is probably a case of diplomatic mishap, where both sides—both well intentioned to achieve meaningful results and promptly report them—due to internal policy considerations (the election campaign in United States and the official announcement of Kim Jong Un’s status on Kim Il Sung’s centenary birthday), pushed their luck too far. In fact, they did not quite grasp each others’ real intentions or reach the right conclusions. It has been reported that in the talks, the North Koreans repeatedly said that the DPRK reserved the right to a peaceful satellite launch, and although the American side warned that any such action would be a deal-breaker, the North Koreans probably regarded these warnings as merely rhetoric, while the Americans believed their message had hit home.
The United States probably should have paid closer attention to the language and signals the North Koreans used. The issue of “long-range ballistic missiles” versus “missiles of any kind” has been discussed between the US and DPRK for years (see a wonderful analysis by Jeffrey Lewis) and the North Koreans presumed it was clear to their American interlocutors that a “satellite launch” was not included in the “Leap Day” deal. North Koreans have consistently argued that the right to launch a satellite for “peaceful purposes” is sovereign and not subject to negotiation. Moreover, some reports have indicated that the North Koreans told US experts even before Kim Jong Il’s death that the satellite launch would take place in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Anyone even slightly acquainted with North Korea’s ideology and system would immediately grasp there is no way Kim Jong Un would have contested his father’s decision. Especially since this deed was about the only one he could present to a starving population as proof of the DPRK becoming “strong and prosperous.” As a former citizen of the USSR (which was much less indoctrinated in the final stages of its existence than the DPRK is today), I well remember the mass propaganda campaigns that would ensue around jubilees (such as the centenary anniversary Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution), for which enterprises were supposed to increase their “labor achievements.” I simply do not accept the possibility that North Koreans would have agreed to discard such a powerful symbol without even discussing a “reward” for it. It was well known that the North Koreans have been constructing their launch pad for over a decade. Was anybody so naive as to presume the North would cancel such a prestigious project by silently including its “cost” into the ridiculously low price of 240,000 tons of food?
At the same time, the North Koreans seem to not take seriously the US argument that such launches are prohibited by UN Security Council Resolution 1874. Their behavior reflects a presumption that this resolution does not prohibit peaceful launches. They also tend to not pay much attention to UN Resolutions in general (which are rarely implemented anyway), especially when talking to the superpower they believe can bend international law to its needs.
Or maybe they just saw a loophole and decided to use it in order to blame the United States for yet again complicating the implementation of a deal made in good faith. To prevent any claims against them, aware of possible US displeasure, the North Koreans did all they could to “sweeten the pill.” They informed all the required international bodies in advance of their plan and even invited foreign experts and correspondents to witness the launch, perhaps hoping such unprecedented transparency would earn them some good marks.
Hysterical reactions from South Korea, Japan and the United States, along with efforts at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit to mobilize condemnation of this act by all the leading states, including a reluctant China and Russia, was considered in Pyongyang as proof of the “hostile intent” of both ROK and US conservatives. At the same time, North Korean diplomats who also need to get out of this awkward situation and justify themselves, have blamed the situation on “hypocritical imperialists and their puppets,” and the military and regime loyalists gladly support them. This is a hard lesson for the young leader, and it will not make him any more receptive to concessions in the future, depending, of course, on what happens in the next few months.
It should be clearly understood that there is absolutely no way North Korea can give up its launch at this stage—even if they wished to—and that any appeals or pressure aimed at them on this subject are useless and will not only irritate Pyongyang, but will also be seen as a plot to further isolate and undermine the regime. Given that, two scenarios for moving forward are possible.
One scenario is that before and after the launch, the familiar spiral of condemnation, pressure and sanctions against North Korea will unfold. The issue will be discussed in the UN, some kind of resolution will be adopted, and an indignant North Korea will stop fulfilling its recently agreed to obligations under the “Leap Year” deal and restart its uranium enrichment program or even other aspects of its nuclear program. A new nuclear test—uranium-based or even thermonuclear (North Koreans have warned about such a possibility)—may follow. That would in turn bring more sanctions, isolation and other “measures,” which could result in new military demarches by the North against the South.
Another option is to try to be pragmatic and prevent all of the above from happening by remaining calm, even with the feeling of having been cheated by the North Koreans. The new leader should be given a chance to get out of this confrontational impasse. The international community should, of course, criticize Pyongyang for this unfortunate plan and its even worse timing, but the criticism should be constructive, not offensive. The modalities of implementing UN Security Council Resolutions and the “right” of the DPRK to a space research program might be discussed in the UN with DPRK participation. The invitation to the test site to observe the launch should be accepted, and this occasion should be used to both increase the transparency of North Korea’s “space research program” and to start monitoring it.
Later, this program might become an issue to be discussed on a separate track—perhaps a special working group of the Six Party Talks (thus increasing their relevance). For example, the idea has been proposed for other countries offer to launch the satellites that North Korea claims it needs (actually dating back to Putin-Kim Jong Il meeting in 2000). Given the fact that the Six Party Talks include the leading space countries, the idea of forming an international consortium (a la KEDO) to utilize DPRK space launch facilities on a commercial basis (which might become profitable in the long run) could also be discussed. In any case, the North Korean space program would be tamed.
I believe Russia could use its clout to promote such a vision, probably with the help of China. Although the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed “serious concern” with North Korea’s planned launch and has urged Pyongyang not to “contra pose itself to the international community,” Moscow has stressed that it has “never put to doubt DPRK’s sovereign right” for peaceful space research. At the same time, to exercise such a right, the political and diplomatic means should be employed for improving the situation on the Korean peninsula and the gradual lifting of sanctions, including prohibition of launches. I believe, as a first step, Russia should use this opportunity to directly discuss these choices with North Korea by sending a high-level delegation to the Kim Il Sung’s centennial celebrations in mid-April.
After the launch (hopefully without any accidents, if we are lucky) is behind us, multilateral talks should be resumed to include the missile issue in a “package solution” promoted by Russia for years to come.
 This is part of a strategy in which quickly backsliding on the deal was premeditated. In this scenario, North Korea has set something of a trap for the United States. See https://www.38north.org/2012/03/aabrahamian0319/.