Interview

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

After Latest Brinksmanship, Engaging North Korea

Interviewee: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
April 6, 2009

Share

North Korea reported a successful satellite launch into orbit on April 5, which the United States, South Korea, and Japan suspected was a cover for a long-range missile test. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting but failed to reach immediate agreement (LAT) on an international response as Russia and China urged restraint. CFR Senior Fellow for Japan Studies Sheila A. Smith says Pyongyang is "clearly bent on acquiring a delivery capability that would make their nascent nuclear program more effective." She says Washington must pursue diplomacy through its allies in Northeast Asia as well as through the Six-Party Talks "to reassure North Korea that diplomacy is what we are intent on but also to reassure North Korea that it doesn't really have any other options but to proceed in the conversation with us."

North Korea's official news agency reported that the country had successfully launched a rocket carrying a communications satellite on Sunday. The U.S. military says the North Koreans tested a three-stage long-range Taepodong-2 missile which was unsuccessful. What do you think happened?

The difference between North Korea's interpretation of what happened and the rest of the world's interpretation of what happened is that the North Koreans had announced that they were going to launch a satellite and the reason for the missile launch was peaceful. [They said it was] peaceful space exploration and technology associated with the satellite. So the North Koreans are basically arguing that they were well within their rights given the international law and that their intent was peaceful. Everyone around North Korea understands, however, that they have been long seeking a capability of a long- or intermediate-range delivery capability. This is the third such test. In 1998, they tested Taepodong-1 and that was reasonably successful. In 2006, they tried the Taepodong-2, which was reported to have a slightly longer range. That was unsuccessful. And now they have this launch, which at least in terms of the missile part, the launch itself--the ballistic trajectory--was fairly successful, although most people assessed that it didn't go as far as many people expected it might.

So what does that really mean?

What we should watch carefully is two things that are quite different from the two previous missile launches. The first thing is countries around North Korea mobilized ballistic missile-defense systems. South Korea, Japan, and the United States all had Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan. They had their missile systems and defense systems on high alert. That was quite different than previous times.

"We need to be fairly understanding that we are going to have to continue to put a considerable amount of our diplomatic resources to the task of energizing the Six-Party Talks again, to finding the right path to engage North Korea in a concrete discussion about its nuclear ambitions."

But the other thing that is going to be different this time is the conversation in the United Nations Security Council. The last time they tested the missile was in July 2006. That was then followed by what we all think was a successful detonation of some kind of nuclear device. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, condemning North Korean behavior, was passed in the wake of nuclear detonation. And no missile testing of any kind--peacefully intended or otherwise--was seen as acceptable to the international community in the wake of that nuclear detonation. So you are going to see a fairly heated discussion in the UN Security Council. Whether or not it will end in sanctions is yet to be determined.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan see the launch as a clear violation of the Security Council Resolution 1718. But there seems to be some disagreement about the legal position among experts. Was it a violation of the resolution or not?

It was a clear violation. China and Russia have taken a less clear position on this issue of whether it violated 1718, in part because they argue that a peaceful intent--the satellite launch that North Korea announced--in and of itself was not necessarily a danger and may not constitute a violation. I don't know if they have come out clearly and said that this launch does not violate it but their public positions today have been a little bit more vague on whether or not 1718 would apply to a satellite launch, though it's pretty clear if you go back to the resolution. The language of the resolution was very strongly condemnatory on the activities of North Korea in part because of its missile activities but mostly, of course, because of its nuclearization.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula

There have been some calls for additional sanctions. The last sanctions imposed in 2006 don't seem to have done much good.

The challenge with sanctioning North Korea is that not many countries have leverage over North Korea. So for sanctions to really work ... you have to take away something they value. And there are two countries that have the capacity to really harm North Korea and its economy: South Korea and China. All of the rest of the countries can in fact impose sanctions but whether or not they really have any impact is questionable.

It is a very delicate balance. The Chinese position has been [that] to really push the North Koreans up against the wall, to harm them or to cut them out completely--of any kind of fuel oil or food aid--would have devastating consequences and would in fact push the North Koreans in the opposite direction. So what the international community is trying to achieve is more engagement, more negotiation, more compromise, especially on the nuclearization program.

"This is a domestic moment inside North Korea where the demonstration of military capability and military strength play to Kim Jong-Il's benefit."

The South Koreans themselves have felt that engagement has had a better chance of influencing North Korea than a more punitive sanctions kind of approach. That being said, the current South Korean regime is much more strict, has a much harder line in terms of the relationship with the north. Pyongyang has been incredibly difficult and sort of reaching out to personally attack the new president of South Korea. So the north-south relationship on the peninsula is very difficult at the moment, although the trading relationship continues to go strong. So again when you get to this question of would sanctions work, the first question is who has the capacity to sanction North Korea effectively and those two countries--South Korea and China--are really key.

What was Pyongyang's real motivation? And does the recent speculation about Kim Jong-Il's health play into it in any way?

We have to understand it partly in that context and perhaps also partly in the context of the current status of the Six-Party Talks. As you know Kim Jong-Il has had a stroke. There are conflicting reports out of North Korea about how much that affected his capacity to govern. The recent visit by a senior Chinese leader suggested that he was in fact very much still in control and physically not impaired. But we don't have a lot of information about how that stroke has affected the overall governance of North Korea and also the future succession which, of course, we all have to think about. So this is a domestic moment inside North Korea where the demonstration of military capability and military strength play to Kim Jong-Il's benefit. It is also maybe a moment perhaps when the military is shoring up their support for his regime or at least they are demonstrating that they have continued influence on what happens in North Korea. Again, the speculation about what happens, that upper echelon of leadership in North Korea is very opaque. So the speculation is rife about how much this plays into domestic politics there. But many people in Washington, for example, and around the world are seeing this as a test of America's new president.

All of these factors perhaps play a role but it is important to understand the history of North Korean behavior and belligerence in the region. This is a capability they have long desired. I don't think necessarily that this desire has been either impaired or strengthened one way or the other by short-term politics either here or there. They are clearly bent on acquiring a delivery capability that would make their nascent nuclear program more effective.

How does this affect the stalled Six-Party Talks?

"[W]hen you get to this question of would sanctions work, the first question is who has the capacity to sanction North Korea effectively and those two countries--South Korea and China--are really key."

That is what I am waiting to see. All the attention has shifted very clearly to the emergency meeting at the UN Security Council and how Resolution 1718 is being interpreted, but the second underlying question here is whether or not this is going to affect the way that governments other than North Korea want to proceed with the Six Party Talks. The Obama administration--both Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and President [Barack] Obama--have made it very clear that they would like to continue to engage in the Six Party [Talks], that they see it as a more constructive road forward for peace on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia broadly. In Europe, President Obama laid out his hopes for nuclear disarmament for reengaging in a more strong and assertive position and conversation about disarmament. Around the globe I expect that counter-proliferation efforts will continue as well as a diplomatic effort to energize the disarmament conversation with countries around the world. So I don't see there is any flagging in the American commitment to the Six-Party Talks. What may come back on the forefront of the table, which has been absent for some time, is missile capability. The Six-Party Talks got very focused on plutonium, and Yongbyon [nuclear facility] in particular, but I believe that the missiles will be reintroduced into the conversation and that kind of delivery capability will be a little bit more at the forefront of the Six-Party discussion.

There are fears that this latest North Korean action may force Japan to rearm or even develop its own nuclear weapons. Even before this, there had been calls inside Japan to amend its constitution, including Article 9, which forbids it from using its forces internationally. Do you see a real shift in Japan's military stance?

There is a very real risk that North Korean behavior will stimulate a conversation in Japan that will push Japan in the direction of greater armament and more willingness to deploy that armament against North Korea. I don't think we are at the point yet where this is going to spur up a real push inside Japan for nuclear acquisition by Japan itself. Most Japanese believe the U.S.-Japan security alliance is the best means of deterring North Korea's behavior. But I do think that it is important to note that for these three missile tests, in 1998, Japan didn't have a ballistic missile defense capability to talk about. In 2006, Japan didn't quite have the capability that we saw on display this past week. It is very significant not only that Aegis and the PAC-3s [missiles] were deployed--visibly deployed--but that also the Japanese senior political leadership began to talk about their willingness to shoot down the missile should it go astray or should it be perceived as threatening to the Japanese. This is the real watershed in Japanese crisis management here and something that all of us should pay attention to.

What, in your opinion, is the best way forward now?

We have to continue to work closely with our allies in the region, with Seoul and with Tokyo, to make sure that cooperation and coordination both in terms of military deployments but also in terms of negotiations are seamless. We have a little bit of work to do there to steady up the diplomatic coalition in the Six-Party Talks. The UN Security Council is another place where this kind of disarmament initiative needs to be focused. We need to be fairly understanding that we are going to have to continue to put a considerable amount of our diplomatic resources to the task of energizing the Six-Party Talks again, to finding the right path to engage North Korea in a concrete discussion about its nuclear ambitions. And most of us are deeply heartened that Ambassador [Stephen] Bosworth has been assigned the role of special envoy. He knows the peninsula well. He is extraordinarily well suited to that kind of regional diplomacy.

It is useful to remember that we are still dealing with a regime that is focused on its own survival. And if the analysts of North Korea are correct that this is a weak moment for Kim Jong-Il's regime, then it is going to take all the more effort by the diplomatic parties and the diplomatic coalition in the Six-Party [Talks] and elsewhere to continue to reassure North Korea that diplomacy is what we are intent on, but also to reassure North Korea that it doesn't really have any other options but to proceed in the conversation with us.

More on This Topic

Interview

North Korea-Iran Nuclear Cooperation

Jeffrey Lewis interviewed by Jayshree Bajoria

WikiLeaks' cables on North Korea's missile sales to Iran have raised new concerns about the country's proliferation activities. Expert...

Podcast

Sanctioning North Korea

CFR Fellow Kara C. McDonald says the new UN Security Council Resolution against North Korea is one of the strongest set of sanctions adopted...