North Korea goes into the tension-prone orbit
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visits a unit
under the command of the Korean People's Army
4th Corps stationed in the southwestern sector
of North Korea
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Doctor of Economics, Professor of Oriental Studies, Director of the Asian strategy center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences
The nascent hopes for the resumption of the diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula in compliance with the US-North Korean agreements reached by the end of February 2012 and for the improvement of relations between Korea and the US were dashed by the DPRK's unexpected announcement of the intention to launch a satellite on March 16 prone with the aggravation of the situation, as the US believes that it is a guise for the test of an intercontinental missile. This topic has eclipsed all others at the Seoul summit on nuclear security, despite the protests of several leading countries against its consideration as being unrelated to the agenda. The DPRK opponents seem to have already decided to use the launching of the missile as an excuse for the next round of the campaign of pressure against that country. What should Russia do in order to prevent the escalation of the situation near its borders?
The nascent hopes for the resumption of the diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula in compliance with the US-North Korean agreements reached by the end of February 2012 and for the improvement of relations between Korea and the US were dashed by the DPRK's unexpected announcement of the intention to launch a satellite on March 16 prone with the aggravation of the situation, as the US believes that it is a guise for the test of an intercontinental missile. This topic has eclipsed all others at the Seoul summit on nuclear security (), despite the protests of several leading countries against its consideration as being unrelated to the agenda. The RK leadership used the forum to mobilize international support for the condemnation of the DPRK.
The DPRK opponents seem to have already decided to use the launching of the missile as an excuse for the next round of the campaign of pressure against that country. What should Russia do in order to prevent the escalation of the situation near its borders?
On March 16, 2012 the DPRK television announced that the launching of the research unit “Kvanmenson-3” by the booster “Ynha-3” will be held between April 12 -16 from the spaceport in the county of Cholsan, Pyongan-Pukto province, and will be dedicated to the centennial of Kim Il Sung. The spokesman for the Korean Committee of Space Technologies said that the forthcoming launch of the satellite is in line with the government's policy on the development and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. North Korea “has provided all the necessary information” about the forthcoming launch to the International Civil Aviation Organization, International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunication Union and also invited international experts in this field and journalists to attend the launch of the satellite.
The US-North Korean "flirtation"
For a long time the improvement of relations with the United States has been the main goal of North Korean policy. The agreements reached since the 1990s were thwarted for different reasons, but it would be wrong to put all the blame for it only on the DPRK. The United States has never taken a strategic decision on peaceful coexistence with North Korea; up to now the main goal remains the termination of Pyongyang’s “dangerous activities” in anticipation of the “inevitable fall” of the regime. South Korean conservative administration which came to power in 2000 from the outset urged the Obama administration not to enter in an active dialogue with North Korea but to exhibit “strategic patience”. It was only in the second half of 2011 that Washington, having realized the futility of such an approach, resumed the diplomatic process. In December 2011, before the death of Kim Il-Sung, an agreement known as “leap year accord” was concluded in Beijing on February 29, 2012. Under this agreement DPRK agrees to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and the uranium enrichment program, allows the return of the IAEA inspectors to their nuclear facilities while the U.S. resumes talks on the normalization of relations and provides food aid to North Korea (240 thousand tons). Such arrangements are in line with the policy of “a package deal” proposed by Russia a decade ago.
So why did North Korea, according to the U.S., the RK and Japan, only sixteen days later announce the launch of the satellite, despite the UN ban, which actually invalidated all the agreements sought by Pyongyang for so long? There are different versions. Some say that this is a deliberate Machiavellian intrigue – to reach an agreement and then immediately create an excuse to step up tension and start talking “from the position of strength”. Others argue that the reason lies in the lack of coordination in a new Korean leadership: diplomats allegedly were not aware of the intention of the military to test the missile. Someone suspects that it was the Americans who provoked such a turn of events since in this case there arises an opportunity to default on difficult commitments and put the blame on “the unpredictable regime”.
Let us try to make sense of the whole thing. How did DPRK understand the essence of the agreements with the U.S.? According to DPRK, the parties agreed that the Armistice Agreement would remain the cornerstone instrument of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula until a peace treaty is concluded (it is a long-standing goal of North Koreans). The North Korean side emphasized that the United States had reaffirmed its obligation not to take a hostile position towards DPRK and improve bilateral relations in the spirit of respect for sovereignty and equality and had also made it clear that their sanctions against DPRK were not directed at the civil sector, including the standard of living, and reminded that “when the negotiation process was resumed, the top issues on the agenda would be the lifting of sanctions imposed on DPRK and the supply of light water reactor”.
No expert believes that the U.S. is ready for such a radical turn of events. Is this a "misunderstanding of the DPRK position" or the assumption by the U.S. the obligations that cannot be fulfilled? In addition, North Korea stressed that it considers itself bound by the obligations only in the course of the negotiations. It pledged “to establish a moratorium on nuclear tests, launches of long-range missiles and uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and allow the IAEA inspectors to monitor the moratorium on the uranium enrichment program”.
The most important thing is to have the United States and North Korea agreed on the issue of whether the launching a satellite means "the launch of long-range missiles?”
Attack the agreement with a rocket
In response to the disclosure of North Korea's plans the U.S. State Department, informed in advance, declared that the satellite launch violates the UN resolution banning Pyongyang to launch ballistic missiles and contradicts the recent agreement, and therefore puts food aid supply into question. Barack Obama, while in South Korea warned Pyongyang that in case of a launch North Korea's international isolation would increase. However, the American position is unenviable: it turned out that it was the Americans who came up with the initiative to give up specific obligations, while North Korea did not go back on its commitments (for instance, the North Koreans have begun consultations with the IAEA on the arrival of experts).
Meanwhile the upcoming launch provoked a real hysteria in South Korea. It has called it "gross provocation”; later (following Japan), Seoul announced its intention to shoot down the missile if it deviates from its trajectory. South Korea initiated the formation of “a single anti-North Korean front” at the summit on nuclear security in Seoul, literally twisting the arms of heads of states whose task was to discuss entirely different threats challenges, and as a result they expressed their condemnation of the North. There is also a desire to submit the issue for the discussion at the UN.
Is such a launch indeed a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 and previous resolutions? Experts continue to argue whether the launch of a satellite if it is put into orbit means using “ballistic technology”, while the UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 only specify banning all launches involving the use of ballistic missile technology. Besides, DPRK has never recognized the legitimacy of those decisions. According to many, the UN Security Council cannot ban the country from engaging in an activity on the basis of “suspicion” just because it is dual-use technology. In the West the North Korea's missile program is habitually equated with “a nuclear program”, implying that they are links in one and the same chain of creating WMD. However, legally this is not so. During the 1998 and 2009 launches claims against North Korea were caused by the failure to issue a warning and a threat to neighboring countries. This time North Korea has met all the rules, and the flight trajectory almost coincides with the one used by South Korea in it missile launches (including the use of Russian launchers). It seems there are no claims against South Korea. North Koreans themselves say that the satellite will be launched in accordance with the “legitimate right of all states to use the near-Earth space for peaceful purposes,” and specify that it is needed for meteorological purposes.
Has North Korea violated the commitments undertaken in the dialogue with the U.S. and has it acted treacherously? North Koreans had been building a new launching complex for eleven years, and this was well known not only in the intelligence community, but also in academic circles. Sources in the U.S. capital recognize that these North Korean plans were known to Americans before the death of Kim Jong II. Can his son violate his father’s precepts? Americans say that during the official talks they informed North Koreans that they would consider the launch as a violation of the agreements. However, North Koreans did not confirm that such an understanding had been reached. Moreover, they expressly stated that if Americans had this in mind, North Korea did not need such agreements. According to North Koreans the launching of the satellite “has nothing to do with the agreements reached with the United States”.
Apparently, we are dealing with a diplomatic mishap. Both sides were eager to reach an agreement and report about it, including domestic political reasons. Obama has his election campaign near at hand. For Kim Jong Ynu an important breakthrough in relations with the United States is needed on the eve of his official inauguration, marking the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung. And no less important for strengthening his position is “a breakthrough in space”. What other ‘holiday gift” can he offer to his impoverished people? So for DPRK the "space fireworks" is dictated by internal factors rather than the desire to create a crisis in relations with the United States and the ROK. It seems that North Koreans have simply underestimated the extent of negative consequences caused by the launch, assuming that the lack of a clear and sharp reaction of American negotiators to their hints is a sign of future moderation of the US which are also interested in the success of the dialogue. As to Americans (who do not have the experience of former Soviet citizens in what concerns “events on the occasion of round dates”), they probably thought that the launch was discussed in principle, in some distant future, never expecting that it was scheduled as early as April.
This version is evidenced by the fact that North Korea did not accuse the US but “the South Korean puppets” of stepping up tension in connection with the launch in order to "thwart further consultations between Pyongyang and Washington," as for Seoul the rapprochement between the U.S. and DPRK is “politically disadvantageous”. Despite Obama’s rather negative comments about DPRK during his visit to the ROK ( the Demilitarized Zone, following his talks with Lee Myung-bak, and a public speech at the University of Hanguk), Pyongyang has called on the U.S. President to abandon the “confrontational stance.” As yet North Koreans clearly do not want to completely “burn the bridges” in relations with Americans, though at the same time do not miss the opportunity to undermine the position of South Korean leadership on the eve of the parliamentary by-elections in April 2012 and presidential elections in December in order to get Seoul to change its conservative regime.
What should Russia do?
Russia's position is interpreted in different ways in the world. In the West the emphasis is made on Moscow’s “harsh rhetoric and expressions of “serious concern” about Pyongyang's plans. President Dmitry Medvedev is often quoted as saying that “strong protest” against launching plans was issued to DPRK as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry statement that the “UN Security Council Resolution 1874 demands that North Korea abandon all launches with the use of ballistic missile technology, regardless of whether they are military or civilian rockets” After the meeting with the Russian President in Seoul Obama said that Russia and the United States intend to "send a signal to North Korea" on the need to prevent the launch of a ballistic missile. South Korean reports on the meeting of President Dmitry Medvedev with RK President Lee Myung-bak also emphasize the fact that Russia shares the approach of 50 states on this issue. The view is actively promoted that Russia has joined the camp of DPRK critics fully supporting the position of the ROK and the United States.
But it is not that simple. Suffice it to recall that the Foreign Ministry says in its statement that Russia "has never denied North Korea's sovereign right for peaceful exploration of outer space", although Moscow has urged Pyongyang “not to set itself against the international community, to refrain from actions aggravating the situation in the region and creating additional complications for the resumption of the six partite talks on the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula”. The commitment to the political and diplomatic settlement has been stressed, which is “the only real way to improve the situation on the Korean Peninsula and to achieve the gradual abolition of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council, including the right to peaceful missile launches.”
We must be realistic. Calls on North Korea to abandon its plans are useless, which means that a constructive solution should be found. Now there exist two scenarios of the situation development.
The first option is again to resort to pressure, sanctions and isolation under the pretext that it would force Pyongyang to “change its mind.” In fact, it is aimed at weakening the regime, and this is how the North would see it. As the experience of 2009-2010 showed it is playing with fire. Pyongyang would feel entitled to take retaliatory measures, including another nuclear test, perhaps this time on the basis of uranium munitions. This would lead to yet another round of tension, international hysteria and would irrevocably bury hopes for the resumption of negotiations and denuclearization in the foreseeable future. The aggravation of a military situation in relations between the two Koreas cannot be ruled out.
Another option is to try “to soft-pedal the whole thing”. Certainly Pyongyang’s behavior should be condemned, but it seems that North Koreans realize that they have overreacted, so if this criticism is perceived as constructive rather than insulting, retaliatory measures could be avoided. There would be no excuse for a nuclear test and other “measures of self-defense”. The new leader should be given a chance. To achieve that it is necessary to stop denunciatory discussions of the satellite problem at international forums, to refrain from attempts to adopt some decisions at the UN Security Council (at the very least there could be an argument about the modalities of applying UN resolutions, the right of DPRK to develop its space program).
Russia can show wisdom and impartiality to promote this stance, which is not too popular in the West (China is likely to side with us), based on the principle of politico-diplomatic settlement of regional problems.
As to the future, an original and constructive approach should be found. At one time a proposal was made to North Korea to give up its rocket program in exchange for the launches of its space vehicles by foreign launchers. This idea could become a benchmark for discussions on what to do with the North Korean space program (whatever our ideas about its necessity in a country mired in a deep crisis). If North Koreans invite foreign specialists and correspondents to be present at the launch we should grasp this chance in order to start a dialogue on the program and get more transparency and monitoring. Perhaps, we should make a proposal to Koreans to use their capabilities for commercial launches of space objects? Or, for instance, set up a special international consortium with “the six” as participants, with the leading space countries among them. Investments into such a project are not exactly charity, there might be a payback. Negotiations on this subject could be started at a separate forum – a special working group within the framework of the six-party negotiations. The more is there the reason for their resumption.