As over fifty world leaders gather in Seoul to address the task of how to more effectively secure nuclear materials, their landing path at Incheon airport will take them within range of North Korean surface-to-air missiles. Although North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities are not formally on the agenda for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, Pyongyang’s leaders have done their best to ensure that North Korea won’t be forgotten in the global confab, first by announcing plans to launch a satellite in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, and then by threatening war if the summit issues a statement on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The United States and DPRK in their respective February 29 “Leap Day” statements tentatively seemed ready to hit the “reset” button in U.S.-DPRK relations, but Pyongyang has apparently hit the “replay” button instead by rewinding to the events surrounding North Korea’s long-range rocket launch in 2009.
Even more worrisome is that the recent satellite launch announcement puts North Korea on a collision course with the international community as the DPRK seeks to consolidate political leadership under Kim Il’sung’s grandson, twenty-something Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong Il’s formal succession was accompanied by the launch of a Taepodong missile in 1998, and plans for Kim Jong-un’s succession were marked at an early stage three years ago by the North’s 2009 satellite launch, which was roundly condemned by a UN Presidential Statement.
North Korea’s outraged response to international efforts to ban its freedom to use outer space for peaceful purposes in 2009 included threats to conduct a nuclear test, which North Korea carried out only a month later. The strong international reaction that is building in response to defiant North Korea’s latest satellite launch announcement will heighten outrage in Pyongyang, while Pyongyang’s defiant insistence on its right to conduct a satellite launch will further outrage the international community.
For the United States, continued North Korean long-range missile testing (even under the guise of a satellite launch) highlights the priority concern of North Korean vertical proliferation, identified in the June 2010 findings of CFR’s Independent Task Force on Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula, and underscores the concern expressed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in December 2010 that North Korea’s development of a long-range missile capability could become a direct threat to the United States.
The current path illustrates a fundamental dilemma for North Korea: actions taken to consolidate political leadership around Kim Jong-un may subject the DPRK to international protest, while deference to international concerns may undermine internal political legitimacy. But what if there are efforts to call Pyongyang on its assertion that it is only exercising its freedom to the peaceful use of space? What if the international community makes an offer that respects their right to send up a satellite but not a missile? If one sets aside the challenges of securing inter-agency support, North Korea’s clear efforts to wed the rocket launch to Kim Jong-un’s political consolidation, and the backdrop of electoral politics in South Korea and the United States, how might one construct a policy path that combines diplomacy and force in ways that offer Pyongyang a face-saving way of advancing its satellite aspirations without damaging internal legitimacy by backing down to international demands? Such a course might include the following steps:
1) The United States seeks a third party willing to offer North Korea launch services to place a North Korean satellite in orbit, and mobilizes support for such an offer among allies and partners in the six party framework.
2) The United States quietly puts into place assets designed to give the U.S. president a credible preemptive option by following through on the past policy recommendations of former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter that a North Korean multi-stage rocket be the object of a preemptive strike if it is placed on the launch pad.
3) The U.S. pursues UN authorization in advance of a North Korean satellite test to enforce Security Council resolution UNSC Security Council Resolution 1874 with action to preempt North Korea’s satellite launch, arguing that North Korea’s 2010 provocations have shown that limited use of force on the peninsula need not escalate into full-scale war.
4) The United States sends a special envoy to Pyongyang to make the offer of launch services, while underscoring American will to stop North Korea’s planned launch, with the understanding that acceptance of such an offer may be used by North Korean authorities as evidence of international support for North Korea’s new political leadership.
5) The United States coordinates with Beijing to underscore to Pyongyang the sincerity of the international community’s willingness to launch a North Korean satellite into orbit so as to uphold restrictions on North Korean long-range missile launches of any kind as stated in UN Security Council Resolution 1874.
6) Having sidestepped confrontation, the United States and DPRK implement “Leap Day” pledges, opening the way for the confidence building measures that North Korea called for in its own February 29 statement.
This admittedly unlikely script would avoid a serious case of déjà vu in which we are doomed to repeat the cycle of 2009. It would also deprive Pyongyang of the ability to use international outrage as a means to unite North Korea’s population in support of the succession process. It might also instigate a serious debate in Pyongyang over the future of North Korea and its relationship with the international community. But does the political will exist to pursue it?