The Duck of Minerva

Launching a New Game with the DPRK


6 July 2006

As you’ve seen and heard, North Korea tested its missiles. They launched the Taepo-Dong 2 multi-stage missile as well as 6 short and medium range Nodong missiles and Scud variants.

What first strikes me as interesting about this is the sheer number of missiles launched–7 overall. The first volley included 5 short / medium range missiles along with the Taepodong 2. Then, a few hours later, they fired off a 7th missile, also of the short-range variety. All the missiles came down in the sea of Japan (click here for estimated landing zones). The Australians are reporting that more tests maybe coming in the next few days.

Up until now, the big issue had been the Taepodong 2. It represents a real upgrade in North Korea’s capability, and is able to hit the US (Alaska, mainly, though maybe the West Coast if it has a good tail wind… click here for the launch site) as well as all of China and Japan. Originally, it seemed, most though that this would be a repeat of the 1998 test, where they fired a single Taepodong 2 over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. Today, they shot off 7 missiles, and that changes the game a bit. To paraphrase the old communist saw: quantity has a quality all of its own. With the volume of tests, the DPRK has upped the ante quite a bit.

This certainly has changed the game between North Korea and its neighbors, and not in a way favorable to North Korea. Basically, they stumbled into a pretty tight spot.

Back when these launches were mere threats, North Korea could use the threat of a launch as a tool in the negotiations. Had they backed down, they could have retained the threat of future test launches for future negotiations.
Now, they’ve played that card and can’t take it back. They are now in need of a second act.

For the US, the cards fell in its favor. By sitting still, the US got a firm demonstration of North Korea’s hostile intentions that they can take to their negotiating partners. The Bush Administration has long wanted to take a harder line toward North Korea, but has found it difficult to do so over the objections of South Korea. Continuing the Sunshine policy of engagement toward the North, the South has been offering large amounts of unilateral economic and humanitarian aid, including the development of factories and tourism within the North. With this test, the Roh government is certain to scale back its cooperation with the DPRK and move closer to supporting a more confrontational policy championed by the Bush Administration.

It also put Japan squarely in the US camp. Japan has been at the forefront of the diplomatic response, issuing the strongest criticism of the launch as well as taking the most drastic actions. This is possible, of course, because Japan is one of the few countries with any significant leverage to use with North Korea–Japan is probably going to stop the ferry that goes between the two countries and ban the significant remittances that flow from the small Korean community in Japan to the DPRK. It also probably erases any doubts that Japan will be a big supporter of Missile Defense.

Even China seems rather unhappy with the turn of events, though not concerned enough to back UN sanctions.

So, North Korea faces a rather more unified front than it did before the test, none of which is good for the North’s ability to eek out a better deal or cut a side-bargain with the members of the 6 party talks.

The US also avoided a major credibility test with the Taepodong 2 failure– it never needed to make a decision about the use of the Missile Defense system. Because the DPRK missile crashed after about 40 seconds of flight, the US got a pass and avoided the tough choice of to fire or not to fire and the system’s first trial by fire. Instead, the US can put the focus back on North Korea’s hostile actions and the newfound resolve of the “international community” to punish North Korea for its actions. The Bush Administration’s policy suddenly becomes (or at least appears) significantly more multi-lateral without having to change.

Now, as Bill noted, its time to “put up or shut up” for the US. Though the US may have threatened punishment for just such a missile launch, there’s not a whole lot the US can do on its own. The US has already cut nearly all of its aid to the DPRK and has put on financial pressures to curb DPRK smuggling and counterfeiting, freezing activity at a bank in Macau back in February. Remaining US sticks are few.

However, there are a number of ways to tighten the screws on North Korea. Japan has several moves, and is making them, as is South Korea. The most significant action left is a UNSC resolution, which will require significant US diplomacy to get a text that China and Russia will support.

The most significant thing about this launch, however, is that it now changes the game between North Korea and the world. Back in 2002, the Bush Administration had few options with respect to North Korea— it could negotiate under the broad terms of the Agreed Framework and 6-Party Talks and that was about it. While the Bush Administration may have chafed under these restrictions and fought them, it had little room to create a new game toward North Korea. In the this case, North Korea did the Bush Administration a significant favor by providing a window of opportunity to close the negotiations game and move to a set of more restrictive and punishment-oriented rules. Instead of restraining a harder-line approach, Japan is now out in front and South Korea is dropping its opposition. Even China is more willing to condemn rather than protect the DPRK.

So the move to a new game is afoot. Sensing the opportunity, the US has dispatched its top negotiators to lock in a new set of rules for dealing with North Korea. There is certainly no guarantee that this new game will be any more stable or provide any more security than the old game, but the rules have changed, North Korea instigated the change, and the shift in doesn’t seem to help the DPRK.

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