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North Korean missile launch torpedoes Obama’s engagement strategy

North Korean missile launch torpedoes Obama’s engagement strategy

North Korea’s apparently unsuccessful launch of an Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached marks not only the 100th birthday of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, but also the end of the Obama administration’s year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned earlier Thursday that the promised launch by North Korea would scuttle the deal the Obama administration negotiated with Pyongyang and announced on Leap Day Feb. 29, which would have provided North Korea with 240,000 tons of U.S. food assistance over the next year. She lamented that the North Koreans had thrown away the progress made.

"If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action.  And it is regrettable because, as you know, we had worked through an agreement that would have benefited the North Korean people with the provision of food aid," she said. "But in the current atmosphere, we would not be able to go forward with that, and other actions that other countries had been considering would also be on hold."

The Obama administration worked behind the scenes for months on the deal, and had been set to announce it last December, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the announcement was set to be made. In February, administration officials traveled to Beijing to try again and proudly announced on Feb. 29 that Pyongyang had agreed to a host of concessions, including a missile-test moratorium.

Since then, there has been much debate in Washington over whether or not the administration knew that the North Koreans planned all along to go ahead with their "satellite" launch, which had been scheduled before Kim Jong Il‘s death. The fact that the two sides issued separate statements on Feb. 29, neither of which addressed the issue of a satellite launch, led many close observers to believe the administration erred by not getting Pyongyang to commit to canceling the launch in writing.

Arms Control expert Jeffrey Lewis explained at length how U.S. negotiators Glyn Davies and Clifford Hart might have flubbed the negotiations by assuming that telling the North Koreans a satellite launch would scuttle the deal and hearing the North Koreans acknowledge the U.S. position was tantamount to an agreement.

"Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch…The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed," Lewis wrote.

Regardless, while the North Koreans surely knew that the U.S. side viewed a missile launch as a deal breaker, it’s not clear that the North Korean officials sent to negotiate with the United States had the authority to stop a missile launch ordered by the Dear (dead) Leader Kim Jong Il.

It’s also true that the North Koreans sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a resumption of talks following the planned launch and the administration rejected that proposal. In between Feb. 29 and today’s launch, U.S. experts and North Korean officials also met for three unofficial "Track 2" meetings to try to salvage the deal, none of which produced any progress.

Lewis participated in one of the Track 2 meetings, held in late March in London. Another Track 2 meeting was held in New York and included experts Victor Cha, Tom Hubbard, Scott Snyder, Evans Revere, Don Zagoria, Frank Jannuzi, and Keith Luse. A separate Track 2 meeting in Germany included Jannuzi, Tom Pickering, Bob Carlin, and Nick Eberstadt.

No progress was made at any of those meetings, partially because neither the U.S. experts nor their North Korean interlocutors were empowered to negotiate.

"Track 2 is useful for what it can do. What it can’t do is negotiations. North Korean delegations at that level are on an incredibly short leash. They are at best letter deliverers and receptors of comments," Eberstadt told The Cable.

And so the launch went forward, and despite its failure, the United States and North Korea now find themselves returning to a familiar pattern of diplomatic tit for tat that will lead to another stalemate and crush the prospects of further bilateral negotiations, much less a return to any multilateral discussions such as the defunct six-party talks.

"The North Koreans will stick to the view that it is their sovereign right to launch a peaceful satellite test and let all the rest of the legal argumentation go where it will," said Eberstadt. "The North Korean government is trying to get the world used to treating the DPRK as a nuclear weapons power. So each time they break an agreement we twitch a little bit less than we did the time before."

Cha told The Cable Thursday, before the launch, that there’s little the United States or the international community could do about North Korea’s missile test aside from going through the motions at the U.N.

"The administration will condemn it and they’ll go the United Nations Security Council to try to get a [presidential] statement, not a resolution. That will be it, and it will look horrible," he said. "And privately they will press hard on China to finally play ball and put real pressure on Pyongyang."

China could indeed do more, such as increasing inspections on its border with North Korea to clamp down on proliferation, Cha said. But in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there’s no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.

If the administration plays down the launch and tries to act as if it’s not significant, it may look incompetent. If it tries to go back to the negotiating table, conservative critics will cry appeasement. If it presses for more sanctions, it will look ineffective and risk wasting political capital needed to press for international sanctions on Iran and Syria.

"All the options are equally bad for the administration," said Cha. "We have to either accept that they are a nuclear-weapons state and figure out how to try to live with it, or we have to go in the other direction and find a way to take this regime down."

The launch destroys the previously held conventional wisdom that North Korea avoids provocative actions while sitting at the negotiating table, Cha said, and whatever strategy the administration had to deal with North Korea has now been overtaken by events.

"This requires a complete reset in how we deal with North Korea," said Cha. "We got ourselves into this and there isn’t an easy way to get out of it."

UPDATE: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney‘s statement on the launch:

Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments. While this action is not surprising given North Korea’s pattern of aggressive behavior, any missile activity by North Korea is of concern to the international community. The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations, and is fully committed to the security our allies in the region.

The President has been clear that he is prepared to engage constructively with North Korea.  However, he has also insisted that North Korea live up to its own commitments, adhere to its international obligations and deal peacefully with its neighbors.

North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry. North Korea’s long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security – and never will. North Korea will only show strength and find security by abiding by international law, living up to its obligations, and by working to feed its citizens, to educate its children, and to win the trust of its neighbors.