I am back from London –where I participated in a Track 2 conversation with real live North Korean officials, with Kim Il Sung pins and everything.  It was very interesting!


The International Institute for Strategic Studies hosted a n0t-for-attribution Track 2 event at Arundel House.  They are preparing a report, but let me make some basic observations.

The event occurred at a very interesting time.  The big news, of course, was that North Korea appears to have moved a rocket to the new space launch facility, consistent with its announced intention to place in orbit between12-16 April an earth observation satellite to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15.

President Obama gave a speech to Hankuk University and press conference at the Blue House in which he made clear that if the rocket leaves the pad, the United States will abandon negotiations on providing nutritional assistance and seek an additional round of UN Security Council sanctions.   (Presumably the DPRK will then withdraw its invitation to the IAEA and we will endure another round of sanctions and provocations concluding with a nuclear weapons test.  I like a nice loud bang at the end of any performance, so I know when to clap.)

The North Korean participants were excellent.  They spoke English very well, spoke extemporaneously from prepared notes, and calmly endured a fair amount of abuse on topic ranging from the florid tone of KCNA statements to the decision to launch this damned satellite.  Really, they were as good as interlocutors can be in such a setting.

I came away with the impression that Kim Jong Il himself made the decision to launch the satellite to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s birthday.  North Korea may be between a rocket and hard place — there is no way to countermand the order of the late Dear Leader himself, but for some reason they also want to salvage the deal.  I am not sure why, after all the nutritional assistance is hardly likely to make a difference in the survival of the regime.  Perhaps whoever makes decisions has enough authority to engage the United States but not enough to countermand the Dear Leader’s launch plans.  Or maybe the deal’s proponents badly miscalculated, telling whoever makes decisions that they could have their rocket launch and their Plumpy’nut, too.

What is important is that the North Koreans at my meeting didn’t provide any reason to think that North Korea would do anything other than launch that rocket.


My remarks focused on decoding the President’s utterances in South Korea.  I observed that the President was clear about abandoning plans for food aid and seeking another round of sanctions.  I also explained why I thought the President would, in fact, blow up the deal over this satellite launch. I offered two sorts of explanations.

I started with three substantive points.

  • First, all previous North Korean launches have used Nodong and Scud engines.  The United States is very concerned about future flight tests of the Musudan IRBM, as well as a possible road-mobile ICBM.  If North Korea were to flight-test some of those technologies in a space launch, the Administration would look very foolish indeed.


  • Second, North Korea’s right to access space could be satisfied, as it is for the overwhelming majority of parties to the Outer Space Treaty, by the provision of launch services.  (In fact, the ratio of satellite operating states:satellite launching states isn’t even close unless you make some fairly ridiculous assumptions about how to count members of the European Space Agency.) Both the ESA and Russia have previously offered to launch North Korean satellites and that a commercial launcher is much less likely to drop the Great Leader’s satellite in the drink.


  • Third, sometimes the wise decision is to not exercise a right you might have.  South Korea, for example, accepts arbitrary limits on the range of its ballistic missiles, which poses real problems for its own space launch program.  I believe that North and South Korea should both refrain from developing indigenous space launch capabilities until the security situation on the Peninsula is rather better.


Then I concluded by noting the political realities for any President negotiating with North Korea.  The United States and North Korea have fundamentally different views on the role of the state and the state’s relationship to its citizens.  These are profound differences that many Americans and Koreans believe are worth dying to preserve.  All we really have in common appears to be a shared desire to avoid a second war to settle those differences, or rather impose our particular answer.

It is difficult for the United States to sustain engagement with a state that most of us would fight to death to avoid living in.  “Provocations” is a euphemism for what most of us in democratic countries regard as appalling acts by the DPRK — the murder of so many people aboard the Cheonan and on Yeongpyeong Island and the abduction of Japanese citizens.

I explained that any President has a finite amount of political capital and that an agreement North Korea is a very expensive purchase.  No President is likely to expend so much political capital if the prospects for success seem dim.  I thought the most telling statement by President Obama at the Blue House was the remark:” frankly, President Lee and I both have a lot of things to do, and so we try not to have our team sit around tables talking in circles without actually getting anything done.”  It was a revealing remark made off the cuff and out of frustration.  President Clinton chose not to visit Pyongyang in 2000, largely because Sandy Berger was not willing to have the President come home empty-handed for the second time in a month.

So, yes, I explained: Any US President with a modicum of self-preservation would blow up the Leap Day Deal over a satellite launch.


I restricted myself, in the Track 2 discussion, to what I expected would happen, but let’s consider some alternatives.

US officials, including the President, have repeatedly claimed that “we make it a practice not to link humanitarian aid with any other policy issues, particularly in the case of the DPRK.”  That’s nonsense. US officials employ a disreputable little circumlocution: North Korea has demonstrated that it cannot make credible commitments, so therefore we can’t possibly provide humanitarian assistance because North Korea might also violate the monitoring arrangements.

At the risk of sounding like a scold, it is immoral to use food as a weapon.  If the people of North Korea really need the food, then the rest of the world has an obligation to provide it.  As to whether North Korea is capable of making credible commitments or not, that should be left to the NGOs that administer the aid.  If North Korea really does divert the assistance to the military or the leadership, the decision to withhold aid should be left to the NGOs.  The don’t give a damn about Six Party Talks or missile launches, which is the way it should be.

(You can add this to the list of reasons that I won’t vote for Barack Obama in the fall. I am sure he won’t miss me.)

Sanctions are a more interesting question. UNSCR 1874 is clear on the subject of “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”  There is, I suppose, something to be said for not leaving unpunished a violation of a standing UN Security Council Resolution.

On the other hand, we’ve played this game before and it usually ends in another North Korean nuclear test — although, really, the shock value is wearing off.  Obama is talking tough about “breaking the pattern” with North Korea,  but this is the pattern — and we’re part of it. (Actually, talking about “breaking the pattern” is also part of the pattern.)

Having the Europeans or Russia put the satellite into orbit for the North Koreans is the only face-saving way out for all parties concerned.  Unfortunately, if the Dear(ly Departed) Leader approved the launch, then any deviation is probably impossible and, in any event, neither the Europeans or the Russians could get the satellite up in time for Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

The empiricist in me would like to withhold another round of sanctions — what’s one more measly rocket launch among parties to an armistice? — just to see if that would result in a different outcome. At the very least, I am willing to test the hypothesis that Kim Il Sung’s 100 birthday is a particularly sensitive time for any North Korean government, especially one that is only a few months old.

In practice, this would mean continuing discussions about nutritional assistance.  On Six Party Talks, the Administration would simply say that we aren’t ready to return to Six Party Talks until North Korea announces a moratorium on long-range missile launches of any kind as demanded by the UNSC, but that we would be willing to include a discussion of the provision of satellite launch services in the Six Party process.  After all, the DPRK may have more satellites planned.  Hell, they even have a white paper on space development.


I just wanted to share something I mentioned today to lighten the mood a bit.  I spent a lot of time defending the United States from accusations of hostile intent toward the DPRK, which I think is a rather one-sided description of the security challenge on the Korean peninsula.  I wanted to avoid back-and-forth about who did what to whom and when, although I noted the United States had acted with considerable restraint given the history of provocations from the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island all the way back to the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968.

Now, about the USS Pueblo.  Most years, the Colorado legislature passes a harmless resolution honoring the crew of the USS Pueblo, noting how proud Coloradans are that the ship bears the name of the a city and county in their beloved state and, of course, calling on North Korea to return the ship.  It’s really the sort of harmless tribute that is a staple of the American legislative process.

Apparently, someone in Pyongyang felt the need to send the sponsor of the bill a postcard — pictured at the top of this blog post — with this note:

The answer remains No, Never, Not in a million years!

Come and get it! The Korean People’s Army is ready to offer you full hospitality!

Now that is hostile.