Who Else Flubbed N. Korea’s Rocket Launch? The Press, the U.N., and the Obama Administration

By now, everyone knows that the North’s missile test was a fiasco, but North Koreans don’t have this fiasco all to themselves. For example, until the day of the launch, the North had never done a better of job handling of the foreign press. It had successfully co-opted the largest wire service in the United States into a megaphone for its propaganda, and it had so effectively focused much of the rest of the U.S. media on its stage-managed rocket porn that the White House more-or-less called them tools. Even after Friday’s humiliation, the North Koreans are still writing their own narrative, portraying themselves as disciplined, spartan, and menacing, instead of revealing the pitiful anarchy that prevails where the cameras aren’t allowed to go:


The regime’s narrative went off-course, literally, when one bus driver took a wrong turn, showing reporters an unauthorized view of Pyongyang’s slums, potholes, and even people in wheelchairs. Even an AP reporter was candid enough in his observations to put the local Pyongyang bureau to shame. Then, when the rocket launched, the reporters who had gathered in North Korea were not only denied the chance to film the lift-off, they were the last ones to know that the launch failed … except for their North Korean minders. Was it really worth sending that many correspondents to North Korea for this?

They were cloistered in a hermetic hotel’s press room, which North Korean government chaperones would not let them leave for more than three hours. The minders provided no information about either the launching or its failure, participants in the tour said. Instead, the information went the other way, after the journalists learned about the event via messages, telephone and Internet connections from colleagues in South Korea and their editors at home.

“Now in bizarre situation our NKorea minders asking ME to tell THEM if rocket has launched,” Damian Grammaticas, a BBC News correspondent, wrote in a Twitter message. “Went up 4 hours ago but they have no information. Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, wrote in a Twitter message that the “gov’t minders seemed to have no idea about the rocket launch … we informed them. [NYT]

And in a flash, the North’s media strategy backfired, more catastrophically and consequentially than the launch itself. Having attracted all of this media attention, even North Korean state media couldn’t deny that the launch had failed:

The admission of failure, which came more than four hours after the launch, is a sign that North Korea’s government recognizes that its ability to control information has weakened. It contrasts with its past launch attempts, which it declared to be successful despite clear evidence of failure. [WSJ]

But to read into the announcement signs of new openness is to overstate the issue, most commentators on North Korea say. The presence of so many foreign journalists and the spread of cellphones, of which there are now more than a million, made it too risky.  “For all its habitual lying, the propaganda apparatus shies away from lies it can too easily be caught out on,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea expert at Dongseo University in South Korea.  [Reuters]

If North Korea itself couldn’t deny a fiasco on this scale, then its lap-dogs in the Associated Press couldn’t afford to be seen as too far out of step with the rest of the news media. Its Pyongyang correspondent, the usually compliant Jean H. Lee, must have been smarting over the fact that she was a mere bystander to The Big Story, even after having invested so much of her credibility in gaining special access to North Korea.  For whatever reason, she put her byline on a story that contained numerous unflattering passages, although these were most likely written by the ten other AP reporters (!) who contributed to the story. It wasn’t hard to tell that Lee contributed this bit:

In downtown Pyongyang, university student Kim Kwang Jin was sanguine about the news.”I’m not too disappointed. There was always the chance of failure,” he said. “Other nations — including China and Russia — have had failures while building their space programs so why wouldn’t we? I hope that in the future, we’re able to build a better satellite.”  [AP]

Lee’s man-on-the-street interview was almost certainly staged and controlled by the North Koreans, but characteristically, the story never tells us how she found this random citizen or who was watching as she interviewed him.

Given the scale of this humiliation, we’re right to wonder what the North Koreans will feel obligated to try now, and wonder whether and how we can still deter it:

Intelligence satellite images showing a tunnel being dug at the site of two previous tests imply that it either wishes to remind the world of the possibility, so as to prompt a return to aid for disarmament talks, or is actually preparing for one.

“Internationally, now they have to do a nuclear test, preferably using uranium, just in order to show that they should be taken seriously,” said Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University. [Reuters]

My worry is that the North won’t feel satisfied with only a nuclear test. They’ve already conducted two partially successful nuclear tests (or maybe three or four, depending on whom you believe). If the objectives are to terrorize South Korean voters and foreign governments, and to establish to a domestic audience that Kim Jong Eun is bolder than his father and grandfather, another nuclear test won’t suffice. 

If the Obama Administration understands the danger and has a plan to respond to it, that’s not apparent.  As of today, the Administration sounds like it had planned to outsource its response to the U.N.  U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said, “We think a credible reaction is important,” and Hillary Clinton said, “If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action.” I suppose it depends on how you define “credible” and “further,” but it only took a few hours for the Chinese to conclusively block further U.N. action, and for the Obama Administration to accede to that:

On Friday, at an emergency meeting, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that censured North Korea’s launch — widely perceived as a thinly veiled ballistic missile test — but stopped well short of imposing any new penalties on Pyongyang.

“The Security Council deplored this launch,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who is presiding over the 15-nation council’s rotating presidency this month. “Members of the Security Council agree to continue consultations on an appropriate response.

The North is already one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world, and any attempt to impose further sanctions through the Security Council would likely have been blocked by China, North Korea’s staunchest ally.

White House officials, meanwhile, said they won’t pursue new sanctions but will seek to tighten the enforcement of existing U.N. sanctions. They also said they had suspended a deal to deliver food aid to North Korea in return for a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.  [WaPo]

Chinese diplomats opened their pirated copies of Microsoft Word, searched-and-replaced the dates on their official statements from 2006 and 2009, and called on the U.S. and South Korea to show restraint. I thought it was a nice touch to allow Shin Dingli — a maleficent, boorish, anti-American ass, who publicly green-lighted the 2006 nuke test and equated killing fish to shelling civilians on Yeongpyeong Island — to express China’s mild displeasure with North Korea:

“After giving so much aid to North Korea, it still did not listen to China, and this hurt China-North Korea relations and erodes domestic support in its continued support of North Korea,” said Shen Dingli, a professor and regional security expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “This also undermines confidence in the U.S.-China relationship, and whether China had done enough to persuade the North. So, China is also a loser, but not as big a loser as if North Korea succeeded in its launch,” he said. [Reuters]

I like to tell myself that Shen is a nationalist hard-liner, because the implications of his views representing China’s mainstream are almost unbearable.  Say what you will about Shen, but I couldn’t have picked a better representative for his government myself.

Maybe the administration really has thought through what to do about this long-expected event, but I don’t see any signs of that yet.  Recently, soft-liners like Glyn Davies and Wendy Sherman have been ascendant in Obama’s North Korea policy. It may be starting to show. The inadequacy of our will to deter North Korea is emerging as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, and it should be.

The launching has been politically problematic for the Obama administration, which only weeks ago completed an agreement with the North to provide food aid in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to suspend uranium enrichment and refrain from test launchings of long-range missiles. The administration had portrayed the deal as a promising if fragile advance that would allow nuclear monitors back into the country after years when the nuclear program continued unchecked.

Underscoring the political delicacy of North Korea in an election year, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said the launching illustrated President Obama’s strategy of appeasement. “This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and its allies,” he said in a statement.

The administration says it specifically told the North Korean negotiators that the deal was off if satellites were launched, since it considers such launchings a pretext for missile tests. But that requirement was not put in writing. Critics questioned the administration’s decision to go ahead without a written commitment, given the North Koreans’ history of breaking international agreements. [NYT]

I suspect that Sung Yoon Lee’s views probably reflect what those in Park Geun-Hye’s inner circle are thinking right now:

Now, as Kim Jong-un is believed to be preparing for another nuclear test, the question remains how much longer America and its allies will take before devising a new collective strategy — one that does not settle for short-term diplomatic gains at the cost of long-term strategic interests.They can start by responding to the failed launching on Friday as if it had succeeded. The Obama administration is correct to cancel food shipments, which were contingent on a halt to missile and nuclear tests. But it should go further and act with its allies to hit the Kim government itself — by tightening economic sanctions aimed at the privileged few at the top of the Kim dynasty’s power structure; by not relenting in that pressure for the mere privilege of talking with North Korea; and by taking new measures to counter the propaganda apparatus with which the government controls the long-suffering North Korean people. [Sung Yoon Lee, NYT]

South Korea has more reason to worry now that its presidential campaign is now beginning in earnest.  As a consequence of her strong performance in last week’s parliamentary elections, conservative candidate Park Geun-Hye is, at least for now, the leading candidate for South Korea’s presidency. For those who aren’t familiar with South Korean history and politics, Park is the daughter of the North’s arch-nemesis and the South’s long-time dictator, Park Chung Hee, whose wife (Park Geun Hye’s mother) was assassinated by a North Korean agent in 1974, while her father gave a televised speech.

You may or may not agree that the parliamentary elections of June 2010 were also a sign of South Korean weakness, but I don’t doubt that the North saw them as proof that South Koreans are decadent and cowardly, and prefer to back away from the North’s confrontations rather than face them. What else were they supposed to think after South Korea’s political left — many of whose leaders seem capable of excusing the North for anything and out-hating the North Koreans when it comes to America — won an election less than three months after the sinking of the Cheonan?  A few months later, the North Koreans calculated, correctly, that they could get away with shelling Yeongpyeong Island. Although those attacks killed 50 South Koreans, neither the South Koreans, the Americans, nor the U.N. did a damn thing about them. Today, a nuclear test isn’t on the cutting edge of North Korean provocation anymore.

Since those attacks, South Korea’s lame duck government has waged a campaign of leaks designed to persuade the North Koreans that they’ll respond militarily to the next attack, but I’m not sure that the North Koreans (a) take any of that seriously, or (b) are really deterred by the idea of a limited war against the South, which they probably see as doing far more harm to the South than themselves. It’s an impossible task to get inside the heads of the people who run North Korea without some chemical help, so after that takes effect, try to re-imagine all of this from the perspective of the insular group-think that prevails within North Korean junta, each member of which competes to propose the most audacious way to chip away at the South’s legitimacy, security, economy, and territorial integrity. Other pursuits — like money, trade, and international acceptance — are merely incidental, and “engagement” is mainly designed to acquire a degree of control over foreign governments, investors, and (most recently) the foreign press.

If the Obama Administration is really serious about doing a better job of enforcing existing sanctions, I’d have no complaints.  After all, U.N. sanctions alone have never done much, for the very reason that China undercuts them. The most effective actions this administration could take require no one’s approval but President Obama’s.  All they require is the political will to accept collateral damage to the Chinese businesses that are keeping the North Korean regime in power, and consequently, the hostile but mostly empty rhetoric we’d get from the Chinese as a result. If they’re finally willing to play the kind of hard-ball that the Chinese and the North Koreans are really afraid of, maybe one day, in about two or three years, we can have a serious negotiation with someone in North Korea.

One comment

  1. Ditto81 says:

    I know I was a lunatic when I predicted in 2011 that KJI would be dead by 2012. So happens he is. Now I call myself a lunatic again. I predict the Regime will be dead by 2014 as I did prior. Kim Jung Un will be alive and well in 2014, his aunt will have suffered a stroke by the end of this year. She will either live or die, Jang Suk will determine that. She will live or her husband will die by 2013.

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