4/12/2012 - Few U.S. Options as North Korea Readies Missile Launching
WASHINGTON — With North Korea poised to launch a long-range missile despite a widespread international protest, the Obama administration is trying to play down the propaganda value for North Korea’s leaders and head off criticism of its abortive diplomatic opening to Pyongyang in late February.
The White House is readying a blunt response to a launching by North Korea, which will include, as it has warned, the suspension of a food aid agreement announced just six weeks ago, a senior official said Wednesday. The United States also plans to rally worldwide condemnation of the launching, which Pyongyang insists is intended to put a satellite into orbit, but which Washington says would be a breach of North Korea’s international obligations.
Beyond that, however, the administration’s options are limited. The United States will not seek further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, this official said, because North Korea is already heavily sanctioned and Washington needs to preserve its political capital with China and Russia to win their backing for future measures against Syria and Iran. The more likely scenario at the United Nations is a weaker statement from the Council president.
With North Korea telling reporters that it had begun fueling the rocket, the launching appeared imminent, confronting the Obama administration with a new diplomatic crisis after an agreement that American officials had hoped would open a new chapter with a traditionally hostile and unpredictable nation.
White House officials moved aggressively to deflect criticism of that deal, which offered North Korea food aid in return for a pledge to suspend work on its uranium enrichment program and to allow international inspectors into the country.
Unlike the administration of President George W. Bush, this official said, the Obama administration did not give the North Koreans anything before they violated the agreement by announcing plans to go ahead with the satellite launching. And, he added, the administration expects the North Koreans to abide by the other terms of the deal if it hopes, as it has said, for a fuller diplomatic dialogue.
Still, for President Obama, who prided himself on not falling into the trap of previous presidents in dealing with North Korea, the diplomatic dead end has been a frustrating episode: proof that a change in leadership in Pyongyang has done nothing to change its penchant for flouting United Nations resolutions, paying no heed to its biggest patron, China, and reneging on deals with the United States.
Moreover, administration officials said they feared that the missile launching could be the first in a series of provocations, which could include the test of a nuclear bomb possibly fueled by highly enriched uranium. A nuclear test would almost certainly force the administration to go to the Security Council, they said.
“North Korea should stop engaging in these types of provocative and destabilizing actions,” said a spokesman for the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor. “We’d like to see nations that have close relations with North Korea consider what else they could do to send a clear signal to this new leadership that it’s time for them to move in a different direction.”
At a nuclear summit meeting in South Korea two weeks ago, Mr. Obama leaned on China’s president, Hu Jintao, to use his leverage to stop the launching. While administration officials said the Chinese were angry with Pyongyang and conveyed that message, it appeared to have not been enough to deter North Korea from a launching it says is intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the revered father of the country.
On Wednesday, Kim’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, was named to the nation’s top political post in a meeting of the Workers’ Party, tightening his grip on power during a week of events marking the anniversary. North Korea has invited dozens of foreign journalists to cover the festivities, including the satellite launching.
The White House has urged media organizations not to overdo their coverage, saying it would give Pyongyang a propaganda victory. The satellite, one official said, was a “dishwasher wrapped in tinfoil.” But that has not stopped news organizations from sending correspondents to Pyongyang, where they have filed frequent reports on preparations.
For weeks, the administration has had to contend with whispers from Korea experts that somehow its diplomats were duped, or that the Americans did not issue a clear enough warning to the North Koreans that a launching would be unacceptable — a narrative that the North Koreans have helped to propagate.
But according to Evans Revere, a former principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department, the new State Department negotiator for North Korea, Glyn Davies, told the North Koreans that a satellite launching would be a violation of whatever agreement they made, when he sat opposite a veteran North Korean diplomat, Kim Kye-gwan, in late February.
“Administration officials have told me that the D.P.R.K. side understood clearly and accepted the U.S. position that a satellite launch would be violation of the Feb. 29 agreement’s ban on long-range missile tests,” Mr. Revere said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Mr. Revere said he had been told by North Korean contacts as early as December that the government planned to launch a satellite. The information was so alarming that he passed it to the administration before Mr. Davies traveled to Beijing to meet Mr. Kim, Mr. Revere said. The North Korean negotiator left Beijing knowing that if a satellite launching went ahead, the accord would not last, he said.
Putting a best face on the North Korean disregard for the Feb. 29 agreement, an Asian diplomat with long experience in dealing with North Korea, who requested anonymity to preserve relations with officials in Pyongyang, said it was possible that Mr. Kim, a Foreign Ministry official, was not told of the North Korean’s military plans for a satellite missile launching.
Some analysts question why the Obama administration did not insist on written assurances from North Korea that it would not launch a ballistic missile. Alternatively, the administration could have postponed the agreement to see if the North Koreans went ahead with the launching.
“This seems to have been a strategic error that has left the administration with an unpalatable choice of denouncing or only partially enforcing an agreement it recently hailed,” said Douglas Paal, the director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and once an official both in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and his successor, President George Bush.
Analysts expressed sympathy for the administration’s predicament. But some said they thought the political calendar — not just in the United States, but in China and South Korea, which are also facing political transitions — had led countries to relax pressure on North Korea.
“Did the administration give a huge amount of aid and get sucker-punched? No,” said Michael Green, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the strategic context matters. Since the beginning of 2011, we have visibly been less urgent about North Korea.”