And now, the painful burning sensation: N. Korea announces long-range missile launch

I have to admit it — even I’m surprised by how quickly the North Koreans reneged on this one:

North Korea announced plans Friday to blast a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket, a provocative move that could jeopardize a weeks-old agreement with the U.S. exchanging food aid for nuclear concessions.

The North agreed to a moratorium on long-range launches as part of the deal with Washington, but it argues that its satellite launches are part of a peaceful space program that is exempt from any international disarmament agreements. The U.S., South Korea and other critics say the rocket technology overlaps with belligerent uses and condemn the satellite program as a disguised way of testing military missiles in defiance of a U.N. ban.

Thanks for the food, you brigandish imperialists. Now, watch us launch this long-range missile in violation of our two week-old deal and three U.N. Security Council resolutions! 소를 가져와!

So much for buying North Korea out of the headlines until the election is safely behind us. North Korea’s determination not to be ignored may be greater than our government’s political will to buy its silence. For those of you still keeping track, the aforementioned resolutions would be 1695, 1718, and 1874. Resolution 1695 says that “the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching. Resolution 1718 “[d]emands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme, and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching. Resolution 1874 “[d]ecides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launches.”

This is a moment of risk and also a moment of opportunity for this President. Either he can allow the Republicans (and the Washington Post) to attack him for being weak and gullible enough to keep buying the same old horse and achieving the same old results, or he can use this occasion to show that he’s tougher than his critics and the North Koreans think he is. Expect the ongoing talks over the delivery and distribution of food aid to break down over technical details and monitoring. That will allow State and USAID to maintain the fiction that there is no food-for-arms quid pro quo going on.

If North Korea goes through with this launch, President Obama could use his rumored visit to the DMZ to use the North Koreans as a campaign foil, in the spirit of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” or “Tear down this wall!” And at least until the election is safely behind us, has plenty of options for increasing economic and political pressure against the regime. For their part, the Republicans ought to demand that President Obama be clear about where that pressure is leading. Will it be Agreed Framework III, or will we finally implement a long-term contain-constrict-collapse strategy that will have some chance of really disarming this regime?

Update: Former Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, responding to this WaPo editorial, argues that there is much to be gained from a deal with North Korea, and manages to have his letter to the editor published just before the North Koreans have the final, conclusive word. Brilliant timing, Mr. Ambassador.

When I look at men like Hubbard and Donald Gregg, who flirted with 3/26 conspiracy theories in the pages of the New York Times, I can’t help but wonder why America has traditionally picked such sub-par minds to serve as our ambassadors to the ROK. James Lilley is the only exception who comes to mind. Within Korea policy circles, there has been an ongoing debate about whether our ambassadors to Korea ought to be political appointees rather than career foreign service officers. The term “political appointee” carries connotations of “political hack” in this context, and that’s true enough of many ambassadorships to low-threat assignments that have been given out as rewards for political contributions. Our ambassadors to China, by contrast, have traditionally been political appointees with strong backgrounds in the military, foreign affairs, or whose background otherwise qualifies them to understand China and its people. There’s something to be said for picking a strong- and serious-minded representative who has the President’s confidence and loyalty, rather than someone whose entire career has been a series of calculations to avoid offending the wrong attache.


  1. The Party-police state which negotiates with the outside world and our State Dept is a different entity from the military-industrial complex that relies on nuke, missile and mine sales to pay their generals. It’s an internal power struggle that has been in progress ever since Little Kim declared the Military First policy.

    Until they can negotiate with one accord, we should ignore the DPRK entirely, put it in complete legal quarantine, ban all contacts for three full years and cut off all SWFTE traffic (thereby rendering all but internal Chinese banking routes untenable.). We’ve done this to Iran and it is about to come into effect with powerful results. So the people starve. That’s the fault of their government, and is not our responsibility.

  2. I like the term “brigandish hooligan.” There’s just nothing like it.

    I am surprised that the NK’s announced this ahead of time. I wonder if the only reason for that is a test to see how we’ll react. Don’t they almost always announce this short of thing after the fact? When they tested nukes they gave the Chinese something like 90 minute notice or something like that.

  3. So is there a version of Kim Jong Un with trollface.jpg on it?

  4. what are the odds that one of these invited ‘observers’ of this ‘satellite’ launch will be Iranians?

  5. @Will, the North Koreans are announcing this as a space launch and thus proper protocol is to give warning of the launch before hand. I see no reason why this won’t be a legitimate space launch attempt by the North Koreans. The Iranians last month put their 3rd satellite into orbit and they are reportedly sharing technology with the North Koreans. That is why I think the odds are good the North Koreans may actually pull this off.

    As far as the food aid deal I think the North Koreans had this planned all along to agree to a deal and then announce the satellite launch in order to build up tensions. The North Korean inner circle needs a provocation to build up Kim Jong-un domestically and a rocket launch is a good manageable provocation for them. Kim Jong-un gets to stand up to the Evil Yankee Imperialists plus if the launch is successful he gets credit for a great technological and military achievement. To top it off he will probably get an aid deal any way after the launch from the US to get them to be quiet for the next year or two which the regime can then play off as tribute from the US due to them fearing the military genius of the Young General.

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