The Aims of North Korea's Rocket Rattling

The launch of the long-range rocket last week by North Korea dramatically debunks the myth that sanctions imposed by allies of the United States could bring Pyongyang to heel.

Taking most North Korea watchers at home and abroad by surprise in terms of its unexpected timing, the successful launch appears to demonstrate that the North has mastered the state-of-art technology needed to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. The young and pudgy Kim Jong-un and his administration have emerged as the fox in the North Asian henhouse.

North Korea has become a master at playing this ‘forget-me-not’ role by conducting nuclear tests and launching long-range multi-stage rockets regularly. With the launch dominating headlines, the DPRK has rather blithely continued to violate Security Council resolutions imposed in 2006 and 2009.

The latest launch is therefore one of North Korea’s continuing acts of defiance against the UN. North Korea knows how to exploit the weak points in the US-led sanctions, as evidenced by the fact that fewer than half of member states have submitted the required reports on their implementation of the resolutions to the Security Council.

It thus is safe to say that North Korea’s unique brand of diplomacy has been highly successful in achieving its goals despite the fact that child malnutrition and chronic hunger continue to cripple the population and that many factories lack electricity, raw materials and export markets. The launch likely cements Kim Jong-un’s leadership, repeating similar past statements that North Korea, “depending on its nuclear deterrence for self-defense, will firmly protect its sovereignty and dynamically push forward the development of space for peaceful purpose and the industry of nuclear energy.”

It was obvious from the start that Pyongyang would cheat. The country has a long record of deceiving the US. So the U.S. has monitored North Korea’s nuclear push in a variety of ways.

In early October 2002, President Bush sent James Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, to Pyongyang. Kelly told North Korean officials that the US had convincing evidence of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium program (HEUP) and demanded its complete elimination.

Dumbfounded by North Korea’s refusal to comply with US badgering, the Bush administration took steps to ‘kill’ the US-North Korea agreed framework, leading the North to resume its plutonium nuclear program, which had been suspended for eight years.

On Oct. 7, 2002, the Bush administration sent three members of the US intelligence community to Seoul to brief the Kim Dae-jung administration on the American assessment of North Korea’s enrichment program. Their assessment, in summary, was that: “ was judged certain that North Korea was constructing an underground highly enriched uranium facility. The location was not identified. North Korea had already obtained materials, including aluminum pipes, to make Pakistani-type centrifuges. If the program proceeded smoothly, North Korea would be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make two to three bombs a year by the second half of 2004.”

Although there was some exaggerated or logically weak evidence presented by Bush, it has become evident that North Korea possesses an already developed nuclear weapons program, claims that should not be taken lightly. The regime has already long ago declared its possession of nuclear weapons, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2003. Equally significant is that North Korea has carried out activities in violation of its NPT obligations.

According to recent estimates conducted by David Albright and Christina Walrond at the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea could have enough weapons-grade uranium to build up to 11 nuclear weapons. About 20 kg of such uranium is needed to make one nuclear bomb. With regard to plutonium inventory, according to the experts on the North’s nuclear arsenal, North Korea seems to be able to make six to 18 nuclear weapons with 34-36 kg. Each weapon would contain two to five kg of plutonium.

Unsurprisingly, Jong-un will likely use the same tactic that led his father and grandfather to convince their poverty-stricken people that nuclear weapons are the best way to safeguard the broken regime. Opponents of the six-party talks thus claim that the nuclear talks are of no use to achieve the denuclearization on the peninsula.

The nuclear multilateral talks held intermittently since 2003 are attended by the two Koreas, the U.S., China Japan and Russia. They have gone nowhere, primarily because the US has been unable to orchestrate a regional consensus against after China rejected the US demand for referral to the UN Security Council to impose full-scale sanctions. The aid-for-denuclearization talks have been at a standstill since North Korea walked out of the forum in April 2009.

Moreover, there is still a possibility of conducting a third nuclear test to demonstrate national prestige under the new leadership, given the circumstances facing the feudalistic regime in Pyongyang after the two nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009, respectively, and a self-confession that North Korea has been developing a nuclear weapons program with weapon-grade plutonium and uranium, the two core materials in making nuclear weapons.

On November 12, 2010, the north revealed to Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker and his colleagues a 2,000-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear site. The North Korea nuclear experts’ assessments reflect deep misgivings that the communist regime will not abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang’s provocations may suggest that some breakthrough could be made at the six-party talks out of a kind of blackmail. Wrong. The Obama administration clearly stated through the State Department on December 12 that the latest rocket launch made it all the more difficult for the US to resume the talks because North Korea “has gone in the opposite direction and flagrantly violated UN Security Council resolutions.”

Many key officials in Seoul and Washington believe that diplomacy won’t work. Neither side shows any courage to break the patterns and principles of the past because of the lack of political will plaguing the bureaucracy.

While the six-party format was seen as a less-effective way to focus regional attention and efforts on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal than expected, all the member states of the talks seemingly assume that the half-baked regional security body constitutes in some ways a method of last resort.

To this end, the Obama administration should not stick to strategic patience any longer. The US must focus upon tangible outcomes rather than finding fault with the North’s situations, such as its tragic human rights conditions. The administration should take into account that a bilateral meeting could be held together with the existing multilateral approach, while making it clear that a big picture can be drawn between the two.

The US should seek to convince North Korea that a nuclear capability cannot be the answer to its security problems. Nor can it be the great equalizer in the realm of international relations. Toward this end, a fair amount of flexibility among the member states will be required.

The conservative Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul eventually managed to marginalize moderate and progressive North Korea policies as hard-line radical factions rose to predominant power in Seoul’s foreign policy and national security structure. South Korea failed to make far-reaching overtures and show goodwill and flexibility on a number of inter-Korean issues. The Lee government has opposed moderate diplomacy, maintaining that during the 10 years of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments, the country made numerous concessions with little to show for it. Right-leaning pundits joined the government’s efforts. They also regard North Korea officials under the Obama administration as milquetoasts.

On the contrary, the left-leaning experts incorrectly assumed the attitude of the U.S. that North Korea was inherently irrational and radically ideological in its policy making was, after, all, a major obstacle for the regime in Pyongyang, instead of forcing North Korean elites to accept the reform and openness as broccoli: It’s good if the broken regime can stomach the plant, which contains multiple nutrients with potent anti-cancer properties.

In addition, the outgoing Lee government made a strategic decision that rather than consistently showing flexibility as the previous liberal governments did, the best course of action for North Korea might have been to mix reasonableness with shows of more principled and transparent policies.

The Lee approach led the Obama administration to believe that there was less need for to compromise. As a result, Washington continued to ratchet up sanctions. South Korean liberals viewed the Obama administration’s policies as deeply hypocritical and argued that the US was interested not in human rights or regional stability, but simply in maintaining its influence in the region.

The right-leaning Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and left-leaning Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, the two leading candidates in the South Korea’s presidential election, both have promised to soften the North Korea policy of the outgoing Lee government, whereas the US-North Korea talks remain stuck in the ditch, as if the wheels of dialogue still continue furiously to spin.

In the long run, the diplomatic process and negotiations have merely created time for North Korea to resolve numerous technical troubles in hardware and software design. Nuclear enrichment related technologies, for example, have been assumed to have made progress. Known data shows that North Korea already has excelled in laboratory-scale work and mastered nuclear fuel-cycle technology.

North Korea is now faced with three strategic options: First, comply with the most important demand of the resolutions by suspending enrichment activities and resuming the six-party talks or the bilateral talks with the US. Second, make the nuclear case the most important priority for Kim Jong-un’s foreign policy. It would become the focal point of a confrontation with the US Third, ignore the U.S.’s requests entirely. Although it would have led to mounting pressures on North Korea, North Korea would increase pressure as well. To this end, the next South Korean government should focus upon the management of nuclear crisis in terms of positive ramifications domestically and globally.

For example, it could be a good option of considering how to break off the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship that has kept them for close to 51 years since the 1961 treaty between the two. Once implemented effectively, fears of military provocations such as the shelling on the Yeonpyeong islands and instability on the peninsula could be significantly quieted.

Not everyone agrees that North Korea’s future lies in accepting US conditions. Take sanctions, for example, which are often viewed as chemotherapy that inevitably increases the suffering of the North Korean people, albeit it is necessary to treat the cancer.

Still, the key questions are whether the US just wants to prevent the proliferation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and nuclear materials as a rationale for an international nuclear nonproliferation agenda, and whether North Korea’s intentions are truly nonproliferation-oriented.

(Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.)