Rocket Backstage

Behind the scenes of North Korea's nuclear deliberations.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

In its second attempt this year, North Korea has put a satellite into orbit. Pyongyang described it as a "great turn in developing the country’s science, technology, and economy by fully exercising the independent right to use space for peaceful purposes." That "right" is limited by resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, which worries that North Korea may be using its space program as a front for ballistic missile development.

Only a few weeks ago I had the rare opportunity to engage in nuclear talks with the Korean People’s Army at their guest house in Pyongyang. Needless to say, I was ignorant of the fact that the men sitting opposite me may have been contemplating, or even planning, this week’s rocket launch.

Throughout our stay, my colleagues from the Royal United Services Institute and I were introduced to the endless contradictions that North Korea offers. One minute we were whisked off to see the now missing "imperialist spy ship" USS Pueblo, the next we were strolling through "Little Manhattan" en route to meetings with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Korean Worker’s Party, and the army.

All repeated their conviction that the "hostile policy" of the United States drives Pyongyang’s need for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Joint military exercises being hosted in South Korea, they said, were provocative, and "frequent clouds make rainfall." But if military exercises are a "cloud," a rocket launch is certainly one, too.

As part of the Six-Party Talks, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have been trying to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Two of Pyongyang’s interlocutors, China and the United States, have recently elected new leaders, and another two are about to — Japan on December 16, and South Korea on December 19. Along with the anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, all four electoral contests have been cited as potential motivations for the timing of North Korea’s satellite launch.

Our meetings suggest that Pyongyang may be most interested in using its successful launch to exploit the South Korean polls. While in Pyongyang, we asked each of our interlocutors a straightforward question: how might the U.S. and South Korean elections affect bilateral relations with Pyongyang? Despite the colorful language North Koreans ordinarily use to describe Washington, all the answers focused on the South Korean polls.

But why try to influence the South Koreans, whom they see as mere "puppets" of the United States? It is possible that North Korea has silently, but correctly recognized that the United States is unlikely to go against the preferences of the South Korean government. If South Korea wants to have a dialogue with the North, Washington would be hard pressed to object.

By now, South Korea’s presidential candidates have made it clear that the days of Lee Myung-Bak’s heavy-handed approach towards North Korea are over. Both Park Geun-hye of the ruling conservative party and opposition candidate Moon Jae-In have stated their willingness to re-engage Pyongyang. Admittedly, Park takes a more cautious stance towards negotiations with North Korea than her opponent, and the rocket launch could shift some votes her way. But despite the North’s provocation, both candidates have built an election platform of re-engagement, and will likely stick to it.

Knowing this, the immediate pre-election period is the best opportunity for North Korea to get one over its neighbor. While candidates squabble south of the 38th parallel, a satellite launch north of it demonstrated Pyongyang’s leadership stability and strength when both were in question. Seoul’s irritation will be further exacerbated by the fact that the country has been beaten in the race to put a satellite into orbit. South Korea has had to solicit the help of Japan, and repeatedly postpone its more recent launch attempts. By contrast, North Korea has done it quickly and in the face of sanctions. 

Our meetings also shed light on the potential implications within North Korea of putting a satellite into space. Two actors will benefit directly. The first is Kim Jong Un, a young leader not yet fully settled in a political culture that values seniority and strength. His purges of the top rungs of the army have installed officers loyal to him despite his age. A demonstration of technical and military capability further consolidates his hold on power.

The second, the Korean People’s Army, may be as uneasy as its master. In his first public speech, Kim Jong Un pledged that North Koreans will never have to "tighten their belts" again. In North Korea, even loose talk of shifting priorities can make the extremely conservative army skittish.

We were repeatedly told that North Korea’s military-first policy will in no way be jeopardized by Kim Jong Un’s increased focus on public welfare. Their protestations seemed overwrought, and indicated a deep unease over the future of the military’s decades-old preeminent position. However, a demonstration of the Respected General’s desire to advance the country’s space and missile capabilities may put the army’s minds at ease.

So what does this all mean? Given the upcoming South Korean election and North Korean internal wrangling, it should come as no surprise that preventative diplomacy failed to convince the North Korean regime that a missile test is not in its interests. Nevertheless, the aftermath can be managed through clever diplomacy that exploits the few changes that do appear to have taken place under the Kim Jong Un regime.

Unlike his father, the third Kim wants to improve the visibility of day-to-day relations with foreign governments, including Western ones. Kim Jong Un’s public appearances are incredibly frequent, and they take him from tanning salons to major military parades. Importantly, he is eager to line the front rows of his audiences with foreign ambassadors. Scenes of the leader shaking their hands are later broadcast on TV screens in the capital.

This was the case the day we arrived in Pyongyang, and was the case for the military parades that followed the last rocket launch, in April. Foreign missions in the country are frequently sent invitations for an event an hour or so before it is set to begin. And what was clear from our discussions in Pyongyang is that the regime pays close attention to RSVPs. 

Kim Jong Un’s desire for détente with foreign governments may be economically driven. The new regime has reiterated its willingness not only to adopt useful economic models from abroad, but also to enter into new agreements with foreign firms. The exodus of Chinese businesses now openly declaiming North Korea reinforces this trend. Pyongyang may be learning that warm economic relations are difficult to achieve while political ones remain so deeply frayed.

Whatever its motivation, North Korea’s enthusiasm for a positive and public relationship with foreign governments creates opportunities and tools for post-launch diplomacy. A condemnatory Security Council resolution with Russian and Chinese "yes" votes rather than abstentions would be a visible and high-level starting point for communicating disapproval. News that suggests Pyongyang is losing old friends quicker than it is making new ones will not sit well with the Kim Jong Un regime.

A second tool exploits Kim Jong Un’s preference for an audience composed of international "friends." Nations with missions in the country such as the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and Russia should do three things: clearly and swiftly condemn North Korea’s flagrant violation of Security Council resolutions, if they haven’t already; coordinate a unified approach to take face-to-face meetings with North Korean officials; and, for at least some time, reject invitations to major events that appear at their embassies. Despite their assertion that "diplomacy is not a gift," North Korean officials notice boycotts. This is a testament to the fact that sometimes the best way for managing diplomatic crises is to maintain and cautiously leverage open channels.

Discussions with high-level North Koreans can be remarkably frank, yielding insight into one of the least understood countries on Earth. "What did you think of our April satellite launch?" one official questioned. I now have an idea why he was asking.

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