The Missile Launch Announcement

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)
March 16, 2012 5:45 PM

The Freeze deal was announced in a press conference by Victoria Nuland on February 29. Today, the North Koreans announced their intention to launch a long-range missile in celebration of Kim Il Sung's birthday, which falls on April 15, less than a month away. The announcement jeopardizes the 29 February deal, and indeed, even calls into question the decision-making capacity of the North Korean government.

As a basis for discussion, let’s provide the relevant statements and legal precedents, and then we will discuss the politics. But we should also be cautious; this is a prospective event which hasn’t happened yet and as always, the real question is what—if anything—to do about it.

The KCNA statement reads as follows, and comes from an obscure source:

Pyongyang, March 16 (KCNA) -- The spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology announced Friday that the DPRK will launch a home-made application satellite to mark the centenary of birth of President Kim Il Sung [Kim Il-so'ng] (April 15)…

A further elaboration followed, which offered “assurances, North Korean style.”

“The DPRK is to launch a working satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, manufactured by itself with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung. A spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said this in a statement Friday [16 March]. Kwangmyongsong-3, a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite, will be blasted off southward from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province between April 12 and 16, lifted by carrier rocket Unha-3. A safe flight orbit has been chosen so that carrier rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries. The DPRK will strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes and ensure maximum transparency, thereby contributing to promoting international trust and cooperation in the field of space scientific researches and satellite launches. The upcoming launch will greatly encourage the army and people of the DPRK in the building of a thriving nation and will offer an important occasion of putting the country's technology of space use for peaceful purposes on a higher stage.”

After the irate response to the 1998 missile test, the North Koreans have prided themselves on abiding by international notification protocols with respect to their “satellite launches,” but of course the question is whether a satellite and missile launch is a distinction without a difference. We come back to that in a moment.

To dot i’s and cross t’s, here are the freeze statements. US version reads: "To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities."

The KCNA version of the freeze reads: "The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue."

Unless the North Koreans have decided that “productive dialogue” has somehow ground to halt after less than a month, the only interpretive issue has to do with whether the announced “satellite” launch is a missile launch.  Not only has the US spoken on this; the international community—in the form of the UNSC has as well. Of course, the North Koreans have rejected these resolutions, but here they are for the record:

UNSC 1695 adopted July 15, 2006 following North Korean missile tests, noted the failure of the North Koreans to notify on the launch—something they subsequently corrected in 2009--and then:

“1. Condemns the multiple launches by the DPRK of ballistic missiles on 5 July 2006 local time;

2. Demands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballisticmissile programme, and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching;…”

UNSC 1718, adopted after the October 2006 nuclear tests,

“2. Demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile;…”

An important document from the standpoint of the missile vs. satellite issue is the UNSC Presidential Statement of April 13, 2009, which was negotiated after Japanese efforts to get a UNSC resolution in the wake of the missile test failed. Reading this, you can just see the Chinese wrangling over language, because it artfully sidesteps directly equating the “launch” with a missile test. But come on; you be the judge:

“The Security Council bears in mind the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia as a whole.

The Security Council condemns the 5 April 2009 (local time) launch by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is in contravention ofSecurity Council resolution 1718 (2006).

“The Security Council reiterates that the DPRK must comply fully with its obligations under Security Council resolution 1718 (2006).

“The Security Council demands that the DPRK not conduct any further launch.”

Its hard to see how the “launch” could have been in violation of UNSC 1718 unless it was a missile launch; 1718 does not say that the North Koreans should not “launch” but they should not test missiles.

But that loophole was cleaned up in UNSCR 1874. Again, for the record, the Resolution (italics added):

"2. Demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology;

3. Decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to amoratorium on missile launches;

4. Demands that the DPRK immediately comply fully with its obligationsunder relevant Security Council resolutions, in particular resolution 1718 (2006);..."

Its hard for us to seen any legal ambiguity here.

Maybe we should have been more explicit in warning them that when we said “no more missile tests” we also meant “no more satellite launches.” But this would be to descend into the disingenuous; it is inconceivable to us that the North Koreans were unaware of our position on the issue, given what was communicated to them in 2009 and no doubt during the recent talks as well. And even if it were not communicated--which it almost certainly was--this is not a misreading on the part of Pyongyang; it is eyes wide open.

A particular dilemma the announcement raises for US policy is the food component of the package. The US has repeatedly said that the food aid is not linked to the deal. Well, this will now be tested in spades. Is the US going to continue to ship food post-launch? Or will it acknowledge that they are linked? Or will it simply cite the North Koreans and say "we're sorry, they linked them!" The answer to this was not long in coming; in her press conference of March 16, Victoria Nuland confirmed that they were linked and that the missile launch calls all aspects of the deal into question.

So much for the legalese. There are implications not only for policy in the immediate term, but for our basic assessment of the North Korea regime as well.

With respect to the former, as always with the North Koreans, it is not about the facts; it is what to do about them. All of the political optics argue for shutting down the deal. The Republicans will have a field day with the administration if it were to do ahead with implementation of the deal and Secretary Clinton has issued the appropriately worded statement. The Chinese, predictably, have been their passive-aggressive selves.  News on The South Korean, Japanese, and Russian reactions are available as well.

But the missile launch announcement raises a more fundamental issue of who is making decisions in Pyongyang and how they are being made.  We interpreted the 29 February deal as a positive development demonstrating that someone was in charge and that there first move was a conciliatory, even concessionary agreement. To reach that agreement and then to scuttle it before any benefits were derived would be buyer’s remorse in the extreme if not flat-out irrational. So what is going on?  There are multiple possibilities, we will close with three.

The simplest is whoever made the 29 February deal got too far out in front and has been reined in or bowed to pressure to renege by other regime stakeholders.  With respect to most political systems, this might be the most plausible explanation coming out of the box. But we are dubious that North Korean politics can be understood with standard interest group models.

A second alternative is that Kim Jong-un is an inexperienced 28 year-old autocrat. His advisors went through the legalese and explained to him that they could sell the event as a satellite, not missile, launch and stay within the letter of the agreement.  What they did not tell him and they may well not understand themselves, is that this interpretation will not fly in the US during an election year. They may have announced this intended action not understanding that it would have the effect of dooming the agreement. In some ways this is actually the more disturbing interpretation in that it brings back into play concerns about Kim Jong-un’s capacity to govern.

A third and final possibility, however, is that Kim Jong Un is like his father. He fully knew what he was doing, prioritized the domestic payoffs and rolled the dice. If the deal falls through, so what?

So where does this leave us? Of  course, we could scuttle the deal and try to take the launch back to the UN if it in fact transpires. Another  possibility would be a different form of "strategic patience": institute our own "freeze on the freeze," but with the ever-stated willingness to come back to the table when the North Koreans get serious—or figure out the full implications of their actions.

Any better ideas out there?



Roger Cavazos

Thank you for the timely observations and analysis. I'll try to do my best at offering at least some other ideas. I don’t think any of them are better, but they do explore the issues and might spark ideas in those blessed with greater insight. With a positive spirit and harboring no ill intentions, I’ll start with four observations and end with three recommendations. Observations:
1) KJU is calibrating his risk tolerance.
I think the Chinese deserve a bit more credit this time because they reacted almost immediately and said they were concerned – in English. Their Chinese-language remonstrations have been as tepid as ever. In the end, they're going to do what's in their self-interest. Presently, Chinese self-interest calls for relative stability. As an aside, China seems to be taking it in stride despite being dragged into the mess. They’re also being drawn even deeper into the mess this time by North Korea picking a site so close to the border with China. I’m sure the site is no coincidence. Joseph Bermudez and 38 north already have some insights on that matter. It’s not the ideal site for launching a polar orbit. One of the Chinese articles emphasized the part of the DPRK statement that the U.S. pledged to have no ill intent. Emphasizing the “no ill intent” part of the statement likely means from a DPRK point of view or a Chinese interpretation of the DPRK point of view that since the U.S. has pledged no ill intent, the U.S. should have no problem with a peaceful launch. If the U.S. has a problem with the launch, then the U.S. must have some untoward reasons. PLEASE NOTE: I DON'T AGREE WITH THEM. I’m just saying that’s what they seem to say and it’s an argument we’ll likely hear. 2) We’re seeing the first signs of internal bureaucratic competition. You already covered it. I agree it’s the most likely and easiest to understand reason. However, to demonstrate internal competition so publically and in such a high-stakes manner is irrational. DPRK so far has proven quite consistent in choosing what they deem to be advantageous. In other words, they’re not crazy as some call them. So maybe it’s better to appear strong and in control than unable to check internal competition. 3) They’re so sure they can change the game and ensure compellence by having a successful launch. If they can successfully demonstrate the ability to put a satellite in space, then much of the geo-strategic calculus changes. The launch vehicle technology is the same, it doesn’t really matter what’s directly under the pointy fairing; if it can launch a satellite, it can launch a missile. 4) DPRK needs to force a crisis just prior to so many world leaders meeting in Seoul so that KJU quickly gets a lay of the geo-political landscape based on how the world leaders react. He likely has a good idea of the landscape based on his 14 month apprenticeship, but this would be his very first solo foray. So, back to the original question: Any better ideas? Not necessarily better, but three recommendations(from someone with extremely thick skin): Recommendations:
1) If they’re going to launch anyway, offer them some basic flight data - if they let in our rocket scientists and equipment (send the old stuff, just in case they keep it). Offer just basic stuff: speed, direction, ensuring it doesn’t fly directly into any of the several thousand pieces of junk already in space thus creating even more junk…those kinds of basics. If the launch is successful, we’re going to need to know as much about the “Unha 银河 /은하” as we can anyway. And having a world audience also raises the stakes on DPRK tremendously. 2) Begin preparations to pull the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) banking plug on DPRK just as the SWIFT plug was pulled on many Iranian banks. If there is a launch, whether or not it succeeds, pull the plug since North Korea will try to sell the technology. 3) Deliver the aid as promised. Remember, it was diplomacy that got us where we are now. Keep making nice since we will continue to have a DPRK problem as long as there is a DPRK…It’s frustrating to have so few choices in the spectrum between going kinetic and doing nothing, but this was an attempt to move the dialogue forward.

sehyek Oh

I think third one on the post would be more convincing. they do not have much time to consider everything. Then why did they choose such seemingly unprofitable choice?. first of all, no mather what it mgiht be, the top priority for them is stability of domestic politics but they also knew they can not completely manage it at this moment. Then having such missile technology is a best source to stimulate thier national pride among the people in NK. and they have promised this year would be a important turning point for their country. Now South Korea in in the progress election capagine, prsumably pro-North Korea opposition party is expected to win in this election. so they do not want to cause negative effects to them. Next one is they may have attempted intentionaly to assure the saterlite or missile is not for a weapon attacking any other countries but for their autonomous national defence as they have been claiming. They do know if they do this lunching test they would lose the chance to get food assistance, but they would have also calculate is it worth to give up the weapon.
I remember they said Kuwait war was because Kwait did allow UN to weapon inspection. they did not still find any substitute proper with the missile. In this context, I would propose US need to pay attention to cooperative work with China to stimulate economic transition of NK. In order to do this, North Korean refugee issues could be useful source. China does not want to be cracked with North Korea. they support North Korea fencing border line between North and China. if US and South Korea and international community persuade China to allow NOrth Korean refugees passing through China to third countries, with help of organization workers, and encourage china to lead North Korea follow China economic reform, this would be attractive proposal for China. because they can have US and south Korea moreover they can avoid condemns from international community about human rights issues. For North Korea, they will never give up China. they may turn way to US. but US need to be with China. Eventually, stability of economy can be the fundamental resolution. US can build electrocity generator in North Korea with joint investment with surrounding countries for the condition, North KOREA must allow foreign ivestments to there in large scale which can be the customers for the power generator.

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