Note: The North Korean government launched their rocket (and failed) before I could publish this article, so I am posting the article here as a writing sample. I plan to do much more work on North Korea starting next month after I move to China.
This week or the next, North Korea will attempt to launch a rocket into space, and with it will go any remaining optimism that the U.S. could convince North Korea to suspend its nuclear program.
The regime claims that it is merely establishing a weather satellite. But said satellite has the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead, which defies U.N. sanctions. The U.S. sees the launch as a breach of a Feb. 29 deal with Kim Jong-un’s government, which had agreed to suspend portions of its nuclear program and allow the return of nuclear inspectors in exchange for U.S. food aid.
Media outlets including the Washington Post and the New York Times had described the deal as a potential “breakthrough,” and speculated that the Nuclear Security Summit in late March would clinch the agreement.
Instead, world leaders avoided the topic of North Korea’s nuclear program at the summit in Seoul, and North Korea announced mid-way through the meeting that it would launch a rocket into space to coincide with the 100th birthday celebration of its founder, Kim Il-sung.
North Korean experts report feeling puzzled at the sense of optimism after the Feb. 29 deal and leading up to the Nuclear Security Summit.
“There is and was no reason to expect the North to have been responsive to U.S. demands for nuclear disarmament in exchange for food,” said U.C. Berkeley professor of political science T.J. Pempel.
“The North allowed 4 million of its citizens to starve in the late 1990s in part because of their ‘military first’ policy. That policy is, if anything, stronger now,” he said.
Pempel wasn’t surprised at the rocket launch announcement, either.
“My guess is that the decision to launch was made months ago by Kim Jong-il and it fell to his son to carry it out,” he said.
Since the devastating famine in North Korea declined in the late 1990s, rumors of persisting food shortage has regularly come up, sparking perennial hopes that North Korea would agree to meet foreign demands in exchange for food aid.
All North Korea experts canvassed for this article agreed that powerful nations, such as the U.S. and China, actually have little leverage in negotiations with the regime.
“For years, North Korea has used its nuclear program as a threat in order to get foreign aid and other strategic benefits, without having any intent of giving up their nuclear program,” said Duke University Korea expert Hwansoo Kim.
“North Korea has a shortage of 700,000 tons of food, and the money that North Korea spent on the rocket could’ve produced more than a million tons of food. But launching the rocket this month during the centennial celebrations of their founder was more important than getting food aid,” said Kim.
Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official of 15 years and current fellow at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, had a slightly different point of view.
“I don’t think North Korea needed the food that the US offered to send them. They get a lot of aid from China, and the idea that North Korea is desperate for food and is therefore flexible to negotiations is something I’ve heard for the past 15 years, and had never been true.”
With the Obama administration facing few options, the attention has turned to China’s possible role in negotiations with North Korea. Yet China has little motivation to pressure North Korea to stop building its nuclear arsenal.
“China wants to kick the can down the road, and wants to avoid dealing with problems presented by North Korea,” said Wit. “China hopes instead that North Korea will change on its own, which it may eventually. But that’s not a short term process.”
However, diplomatic relationships with North Korea may improve in the future.
This fall, South Korea will elect a new president, and the nine members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee will be replaced. Depending on results of elections and the makeup of China’s new leaders, the climate for negotiations may be better next year.
“China really doesn’t have that much power over North Korea. The best scenario would be if South Korea elects a president more willing to negotiate with North Korea and Obama gets re-elected,” said Kim.