Making sense of North Korea's gambit

nick-bisley Assoc. Professor Nick Bisley

Originally published in The Age, 11th April 2009

Since it admitted to enriching uranium at its Yongbyon facility in October 2002, North Korea’s security ambitions have been destabilizing Northeast Asia. Sunday’s ballistic missile test, coyly dressed as a satellite launch to get around UN Security Council resolutions, is the latest provocation. At first glance, the logic behind it is not entirely sound. The Obama administration is clearly much more supportive of multilateral diplomacy than its predecessor and is currently reviewing its Asian policy; an odd time to be antagonizing a new president. Equally, no new technological developments were being tested and the missile is a long way from being operationally useful.

The test, however, is not about technical questions; it is an effort to sow division among the parties to the Six-Party Talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. By declaring that it is about the peaceful exploitation of space North Korea can say that is not in breach of UN Security Council resolution 1718 which prohibits ballistic missile testing and not blush. By acting properly in the lead up to the test, giving prior warning of the launch window and notifying maritime agencies, it has made making objections much harder to sustain. It also provides scope for differential interpretations by each party and the possibilities of friction among the parties. The failure of the Security Council to come up even with a Presidential Statement, a communiqué that lacks the heft of a resolution, was due to the differences in opinion between Russia and China on the one hand, and the US, France and Britain on the other.

The test is also an effort try to regain the initiative in the negotiation process. The North’s approach to the Talks has historically been premised on the idea that spectacular and at times confrontational acts generate movement at the negotiating table. Rather like the spoiled child acting up to get attention, North Korea has successfully been able to get diplomatic advantage through poor behaviour. The missile test is entirely in keeping with this practice. The challenge, from an international point of view, is working out how to get the spoiled child to behave when there are so few means through which leverage can be exerted. North Korea’s isolation and the regime’s ruthless approach to its own citizenry provides interlocutors with very few means to influence Pyongyang’s behaviour.

The test is of strategic concern for all in the region, but one in which a sense of proportion in the policy response is vital. The launch prompted genuine concern in South Korea and Japan, and led to the activation of Japan’s highly controversial missile defence system. The slight but very real prospect of an accidental triggering of a conventional missile exchange was made worryingly plain. Beyond this, however, the test revealed no new Korean capability, the Taepodong-2 missile is still slow to launch, inaccurate, and has no meaningful payload.  Compared with the unannounced launch of Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998 or the 2006 nuclear test this provocation does not rank highly. It is disconcerting that Pyongyang is not moderating its approach to the diplomatic process and disappointing that it is seeking to divide the parties, most particularly to prise apart the very effective partnering of the US and China, but in itself the launch does not pose much of a threat.

The UN Security Council has not only failed – thus far – to respond to a very evident threat to international security, which is after all its core function, it has been clearly mocked by one of international society’s puniest members. That North Korea can satisfy the letter of international law and so clearly thumb its nose at its spirit is depressing to say the least and further evidence of the need to overhaul the centre-piece of international law. While it is unlikely to derail the Six-Party talks themselves, the problems in New York indicate that Beijing and Washington need rapidly to align their positions. While Beijing does not quite have the same influence over North Korea as it has in the past, it is easily the power with the greatest sway. China, Japan and the US need to work to build a clear and unshakeable common position not only to the longer-term objectives but in the way they manage DPRK provocation.

Sunday’s test is not a game-changer. It reflects an unfortunate continuation of North Korea’s basic strategy of trying to buy security while maximising its leverage. For the US, the challenge lies in working out how to maintain a measured response while trying to change North Korea’s behaviour. The biggest mistake Obama could make would be to over-react. The launch has not only tested his crisis-response abilities, it appears to be challenging his core political message. There is a need to maintain many aspects of the Bush administration’s policy, most obviously the excellent working relationship with China at the Talks. Change is needed to ensure that sanctions work, that commitments are upheld and that provocative acts are treated appropriately. The best way to do this is not through pre-emptive strikes, denunciation or high-blown rhetoric, but in diplomacy that forges a clear and robust consensus among the five negotiating parties. For so long as Kim Jong-il can play off the differences between them we will continue to see these provocative set-pieces.