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Rocket plan breaks spirit of food aid deal

Negotiations with Pyongyang must be much tougher and clearer on language

Two weeks after initially surprising the world with an agreement on Feb. 29, North Korea again surprised everyone by announcing it will launch a “satellite” to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

This will likely scuttle the leap day deal and the sliver of optimism stemming from the agreement and DPRK Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Yong-ho’s visit to New York in early March. It is interesting that the Feb. 29 deal seems to have incited the very thing the U.S. was looking to prevent: a provocation.

An original assessment of the initial contradiction between the leap day deal and the satellite launch announcement suggested potential in-fighting with a North Korean military responding to the feeling of being hemmed in. However, as this story unfolds, it appears this succession of events was North Korea’s plan all along.

The U.S.’s mistake of not including language about space launches in the Feb. 29 statement now illustrates that North Korea continues to be the problem, looking for concessions rather than real cooperation.

It now seems North Korea wanted to negotiate over food aid and getting back to the six-party talks just to embarrass the U.S. or make President Barack Obama cave, neither of which is negotiating in good faith. North Korea looks to have wanted to link food aid and nuclear weapons negotiations further, rather than getting more food for its people. North Korea’s announcement and actions now demonstrate it was not trying to move things forward in a positive manner.

North Korea asked for actions to build trust and confidence and responded in a way that reduced both even more.

Again, especially if North Korea already informed the U.S. that it would launch a satellite, the U.S. should have pushed for the Feb. 29 deal to include language on space launches. If North Korea wouldn’t agree to such wording in the statement, the deal should have been called off. It is a U.S. mistake, but a space launch by North Korea would break the spirit of the leap day agreement and go against United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The Obama administration has done what analysts have suggested. The U.S. tried to broaden the scope of discussions by talking with North Korea on issues involving food aid, nuclear weapons, missiles and prisoners of war remains from the Korean War, looking for areas and signs of cooperation. By working toward the Feb. 29 agreement, the Obama administration risked reducing the closeness of its alliance with South Korea and political capital in an election year for an attempt at cooperation and moving forward with U.S.-North Korea relations.

The broader scope and attempted talks could not connect with the narrow North Korean window in negotiations. The leap day deal would have helped the U.S. gain a new insight into a North Korea under Kim Jong-un by putting monitors on the ground inside the country. The U.S. must now learn from its negotiating mistake and emphasize that North Korea appears less interested in actual cooperation and improving its status in the world.

With the launch announcement and the spirit of the February deal broken, the U.S. must suspend its food aid. The U.S. might lose the legalese battle of breaking the agreement, but apparently food aid was not the first priority for the North Korean leadership anyway.

Pressuring China will also be important. The U.S. must emphasize the internal stability China seeks in North Korea appears to be there, but the situation has increased concern and made other countries in the region unsure of the intentions of both China and North Korea. Moreover, the U.S. should stress to China that the announcement and launch for space purposes demonstrates North Korea’s willingness to ignore U.N. resolutions and warnings from the U.S. and China.

Publicizing China’s blocking of U.N. reports on the status of sanctions compliance against North Korea is also a must in that pressure. The U.S. itself must continue its policies of sanctions, monitoring suspicious North Korean shipments and strengthening the military alliance with South Korea; however, negotiations must be much tighter and clearer on language.

The Feb. 29 agreement gave the international community information about Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. With the action surrounding the deal and launch announcement still playing out, the new North Korean regime looks to be continuing its transition as well as the old policies toward the U.S. Thus, the interest and slight optimism generating from the deal have turned to pessimism, suspicion and blame. The space launch news illustrates that North Korea is the problem, and it will continue to be long, hard work for denuclearization and better relations between the U.S. and its allies and North Korea. 
Nicholas Hamisevicz
Nicholas Hamisevicz

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the director of research and academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own. ― Ed.