Straub addresses abrupt change in North Korea agreement


A bronze statue of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Sept. 2007. North Korea will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim's birth this year on Apr. 15.
Photo credit: 
Flickr/Will De Freitas

North Korea’s government announced it will launch a long-range rocket to orbit a satellite within a few days of the 100th anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on Apr. 15.

The statement comes on the heels of an important U.S.-North Korea agreement on Feb. 29, in which the United States promised to provide North Korea with 240,000 tons of food aid over the next year while North Korea would refrain from nuclear and long-range missile tests and allow international inspection of its declared nuclear facilities. The situation echoes that of 2009, when North Korea also gave advance notice of a "peaceful" long-range rocket launch. North Korea’s 2009 missile test prompted a United Nations condemnation, after which North Korea conducted its second test of a nuclear device.

David Straub, associate director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program and a former State Department Korea expert, speaks about North Korea’s latest statement.

Why is the new North Korea announcement of possible concern?

This type of launch is something the U.N. Security Council earlier condemned and forbade North Korea to do again. There is a large overlap in the technologies used for such a rocket and for a long-range ballistic missile, and the international community is deeply suspicious that North Korea will use what it learns from such launches to develop long-range missile technology.

The larger concern is that North Korea intends eventually to pair long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, creating a much greater threat to other countries, including the United States.

Was there any indication North Korea would issue this statement?

Given North Korea’s history of reneging on deals, the Obama administration wisely noted at the time of the Feb. 29 announcement that it was a "limited" agreement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that North Korea’s upholding of its side of the agreement would be the key to the deal’s overall success.

There is no doubt the U.S. government would not have announced this agreement if it had anticipated that North Korea would almost immediately have declared its intention to launch another long-range rocket.

Why would North Korea decide to announce a rocket launch?

At this point, we can only speculate about North Korea’s motivations for the announcement. It could be related to the recent leadership succession in North Korea. Kim Jong Un, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, is an inexperienced leader still in his 20s. He and his advisors may feel it is necessary to defy the United States so blatantly to demonstrate at home how strong a leader he is. 

Or perhaps, after testing two nuclear devices and several long-range missiles, the North Korean government has become more confident about its diplomatic ability to withstand international condemnations and sanctions.

In any event, it is a stunning slap in the face of the Obama administration, which will need to react firmly. Already, less than 24 hours after the North Korean announcement, the Department of State has publicly said that the entire Feb. 29 agreement, including the delivery of food aid, has been put on hold.  

What should we expect to happen next?

A real danger is that the events of 2009 will be repeated. The North Korean government reacted angrily to the U.N. Security Council’s presidential statement against it three years ago, and withdrew from the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang then proceeded to conduct a nuclear test only a month later.

The most worrisome aspect is the possibility that the new leadership in North Korea feels insecure at home and thus obliged to act tough, and also has poor judgment about the United States and the international community as a whole. If so, the North Korea issue could become significantly more confrontational—and dangerous—in the coming months.


U.S. Department of State: North Korean announcement of missile launch

Reuters: North Korea’s missile and "satellite" programs