A long-range rocket launch planned by North Korea probably would wreck its recent food-for-nuclear concessions agreement with the US and, with it, hopes for improving relations under the North’s new leader, Kim Jong-un.
The North announced on Friday its planned launch of a satellite into space, marking a sharp and sudden turn just 17 days after the two countries offered unexpected signs of hope that three years of tensions were easing. Such a launch would violate a UN ban.
“It’s a real slap in the face,” said Victor Cha, a White House director for Asia policy during the administration of former US president George W. Bush. “It undercuts a lot of theories that the young leadership might be different. If anything, it shows that it’s very much the same as before, only more unpredictable.”
It is an embarrassment in an election year for US President Barack Obama, who has been accused by Republican presidential candidates as naive in his foreign policy. Republican lawmakers already have criticized his administration for “appeasing” Pyongyang by offering 217,725 tonnes of food in exchange for a freeze on nuclear activities and a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
If North Korea carries out the launch, it will be hard to keep alive the accord announced on Feb. 29.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Friday that a satellite launch would be a “deal-breaker” and indicated that the US would be very unlikely to send the food, notwithstanding what Washington says are the purely humanitarian reasons for offering to feed malnourished North Koreans. She said that a launch in abrogation of the North’s commitments would undermine confidence that the North would allow proper monitoring of the distribution of the aid.
The North’s announcement highlights the pitfalls of negotiating with a secretive regime, which views its nuclear program as a deterrent against invasion. The US retains 28,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, and the two Koreas remain in a state of war as the conflict ended without a peace treaty.
Previous US efforts over the past two decades to persuade North Korea to disarm always have ended in disappointment. Even before Friday’s announcement, a group of five Republican senators wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week accusing the administration of accepting the North’s “hollow commitments.”
Although North Korea says the rocket launch will be for peaceful means, the same kind of technology is used for ballistic missiles, which could eventually provide a delivery system for a nuclear weapon if the North should become able to miniaturize one for use on a warhead.
“They [North Korea] are putting the Obama administration in a very, very difficult position,” said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official for East Asia. “The administration would have little choice but to react in a firm way to this.”
The US could refer the matter to the UN Security Council. The last time North Korea conducted such a rocket launch, in April 2009 — also described as a bid to send a communications satellite into space — the council condemned it.
Whether permanent council members Russia and China, the North’s closest ally, would support such a step this time remains unclear. All parties will be mindful of what can happen if the North feels cornered. Soon after the 2009 launch, the North conducted a nuclear test.