The hope that North Korea would denuclearize was reignited following the Feb. 29 declaration of an agreement sealed in Beijing between the United States and North Korea. On Mar. 27, leaders from more than 50 countries and international organizations convened in Seoul to discuss the most pressing nuclear security issues, with North Korea among the issues at the top of the conference agenda. The United States’ concern over North Korea’s nuclear threat is justified, but Washington needs a more nuanced strategy than merely demanding and pressuring the North to forgo its rocket launch plan, which is a strategy worth pursing to break away from the US-North Korea stalemate where the United States has little leverage.
In return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid composed mainly of nutritional supplements aimed at vulnerable population groups, North Korea alleged that it would commit itself to a series of measures toward denuclearization and reestablishment of a bilateral working relationship. Specifically, the North pledged that it would: 1) freeze its uranium enrichment program at its Yongbyon facility under the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, 2) impose a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for as long as there was an ongoing constructive dialogue, 3) pay due respect to the Korean armistice and 4) honor the 2005 Six-Party joint statement on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and normalization of relations among the parties.
However, two weeks into a hopeful reconnection with the United States, North Korea announced on March 16 that it would launch a satellite using a rocket with a design similar to that used in its ballistic missile program. The announcement is not only a blatant contradiction of the understandings reached in Beijing, but also an open defiance of a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution of April 2009 that forbade the North from undertaking any rocket launch tests using ballistic missile technology. Though disappointing, the North’s breach of its pledge is nothing surprising in light of the North’s previous defiance of nuclear-related agreements.
There is meager chance for North Korea to delay or cancel its satellite launch, which is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding father and Greater Leader Kim Il-Sung.
North Korea’s neighbors are becoming increasingly uneasy about the North’s proactive moves. Japanese defense minister Naoki Tanaka announced that Japan would deploy guided-missile destroyers and antiaircraft batteries to shoot down North Korea’s rocket if it falls toward Japanese territory. South Korea made a similar vow after the South Korean media reported that North Korea fired several short-range missiles off its west coast last week.
The Obama administration decided to enlist help from China. In a blunt, 90-minute long meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao on Mar. 26 in Seoul before the nuclear summit, Obama demanded that China use its leverage over North Korea to stop the North from pursing a space satellite launch in the middle of this month and declared that the vibrant economy and democracy of South Korea would eventually triumph over the isolation and failure of its northern neighbor.
Despite North Korea’s seemingly steadfast allegiance to China, it is unclear how much Beijing is able to leverage nuclear decision-making in Pyongyang. The Chinese are already very irritated by the erratic and dangerous behaviors of North Korea. Since North Korea’s Mar. 16 declaration of a rocket launch, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has called in North Korean diplomats twice to express its frustration and annoyance. However, the North Koreans were firm that they would not budge. Disappointed by its lack of leverage over Pyongyang, Beijing turned to Washington to persuade North Korea to continue the negotiation on denuclearization.
The United States is rightly concerned with the North Korean nuclear threat. Given the fact that North Korea’s two previous nuclear weapons tests followed shortly after efforts to launch missiles, North Korea expert Jonathan Pollack at the Brookings Institution warns that the United States and the international community should not discount the threat.
Nevertheless, Washington should switch its policy course. The planned launch has been in the making for a long time, rather than a mere result of internal power struggle or a drive to gain external validation. Given North Korea’s history of colonial rule and imperialist exploitation that significantly shapes North Korean thinking, there is a broader, deeper, strategic motivation than simply the celebration of Kim Il-Sung’s birthday. The North Koreans view becoming a nuclear state on par with other advanced countries as an almost indispensable step towards realizing its long-held dream since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic. Instead of returning to a stalemate, Washington can closely observe the launch and redirect negotiating efforts to push for more transparency in the satellite program. The United States should demand for access to actual facilities. This is not a sign of weakness, but a much-needed tactic to get what the United States wants to know the most — what exactly is happening inside the Yongbyon facilities.
It is time for Washington to try an alternative strategy in managing the North Korea challenge.
Closely observing North Korea’s rocket launch while gaining access to critical nuclear facilities can free Washington from the conventional tit-for-tat game where Pyongyang had an upper hand for years. Enhanced nuclear information and monitoring are more valuable to the United States than ineffectual direct pressuring or indirect pushing through China.
Shiran is a senior. You can reach her at email@example.com.