Obama‘s option for Koreas
Pyongyang’s announcement to launch a satellite into outer space has, in one stroke, smashed hopes of a thaw in U.S.-North Korea relations, generating a palpable sense of despair among many longtime proponents of talking to the North.
The surprise decision made a mockery of the Feb. 29 “Leap Day Deal,” the first major foreign relations decision of the Kim Jong-un leadership and the first deal yet reached with the Obama administration.
Tokyo is readying Patriot missiles on Okinawa to shoot down any stray North Korean rocket parts. Moscow criticized the launch, and even Beijing summoned the North Korean ambassador to express concern. By Chinese standards, that’s the equivalent of reading Pyongyang the riot act.
Such outraged responses are understandable. In addition to violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, the launch is a direct breach of the trust that was just being built in the process of the February agreement. But even long-time North Korea watchers are surprised at the sudden reversal, and the fact that Pyongyang scuttled a deal from which it had not yet benefited. The explanation for this puzzle lies in North Korean domestic political legitimacy building.
Kim Jong-il proclaimed that 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, marks North Korea’s emergence as a strong and prosperous nation. The space launch can serve as a dramatic symbol of this new era, overshadowing the dark reality of economic hardship.
Given South Korea’s repeated failure to launch a satellite, it is a rare propaganda asset in Pyongyang’s rivalry with Seoul. But by jeopardizing the U.S. deal, the launch actually reveals the depth of the trap created by the Kim Il-sung’s ideology of self-reliance (juche) and Kim Jong-il’s policy of military first (songun). This is precisely the kind of dilemma North Korea faces in transitioning to a new era of security plus prosperity.
The North’s dilemma creates conundrums for Washington, testing the Obama administration’s stomach for dealing with the land of lousy options. There were, after all, much more provocative ways to celebrate April 15 ― including a third nuclear test or military clash in the West Sea. From an American perspective, the announcement is a slap in the face. But by the standards of domestic politics in Pyongyang, the space launch seems the most moderate option, one that leaves a crack open for further negotiation.
The consensus view among experts ― even many advocates of engagement ― is that this launch is the final straw, and there is no reason to continue dealing with Pyongyang. But in our view, the U.S. must keep its priorities straight, and pursue them through proactive and preventive, rather than punitive, diplomacy.
Washington’s goal is control of nuclear materials and weapons; missiles without nuclear warheads constitute a lesser threat. Firm, steady gains in monitoring and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program may justify concessions on the rocket launch.
So to break the impasse, President Obama should send an envoy to Pyongyang to discuss the deteriorating situation ― someone senior enough for the first tete-a-tete with Kim Jong-un.
Even announcing that idea buys everyone some time, cools tempers, and puts the U.S. back in the driver’s seat. Such a gesture helps legitimatize the regime and therefore represents a valuable gift to the Kim Jong-un regime, giving those who seek improved relations with the U.S., like the foreign ministry, some leverage vis-a-vis hard-liners.
President Obama needs to play a much more complex game of leveraging the situation to move Pyongyang toward moderation, cooperation, and eventual denuclearization ― and he needs a direct channel to the highest level in the North. Walking away, while justified, plays into the wrong hands.
Obama’s envoy to Pyongyang could put North Korea in a reactive position by floating bold initiatives, such as an offer to launch North Korea’s satellite on its behalf (as once suggested by Kim Jong-il). Russia and China might also volunteer. Even North and South Korea could one day work together to develop a peaceful space program, turning a regional crisis into an inter-Korean opportunity.
The U.S. envoy could also press to renew missile talks, which were close to a breakthrough when Madeleine Albright met directly with Kim Jong-il in late 2000, before being scuttled by the George W. Bush administration (Wendy Sherman, now under-secretary of state, was with Albright in Pyongyang and knows this history better than anyone).
North Korea is at the crossroads of sticking with “military-first” politics, or striving to become a normal, integrated state under the new leadership. Tough reactions to the satellite, while justified, are likely to empower North Korean hardliners, while undercutting those who favor opening, reform, and economic betterment.
Especially now, with a new leadership, any North Korea policy must factor in their domestic political dynamics. While in Seoul, President Obama has an opportunity to put the brakes on the rapidly deteriorating situation by presenting imaginative new policy initiatives. The alternative is all too predictable.
Moon Chung-in is a professor of Yonsei University. He visited Pyongyang as an advisor to both former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun during their summits with Kim Jong-il in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Delury is a professor of Yonsei University specializing in Northeast Asian affairs. Contact him at email@example.com.