It is already the 2nd of July in Korea, where Yonhap is reporting more missile launches off North Korea’s East Coast. This time, the missiles are said to be KN-09 cruise missiles,* a brand whose alleged proliferation to the North recently generated controversy between two bloggers, each of whom is not me.
The latest launch follows the weekend launch of two short-range (300-mile) SCUDs missiles into the Sea of Japan from the vicinity of Wonsan. (Here is KCNA’s commentary on Kim Jong Un’s on-the-spot guidance of the fireworks.) The launches follow the test of another short-range system last week, which North Korea says was a guided tactical missile.
Before the latest launch, Reuters reported that “North Korea has so far conducted test firing of its ballistic missiles and rockets 11 times this year, including four involving ballistic missiles,” and that fireworks are routine before and during joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The last joint exercises ended months ago, however, and the next one, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, won’t happen until August or September.
All of the launches are either flagrant or potential violations of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions. Each may represent a modest improvement in North Korea’s technical and operational capabilities, but the launches themselves aren’t really the story. The story is that hardly anyone even pretends to care anymore.
The launches also remind us that we’re still in the hostile phase of the vicious cycle President Park described in her address to Congress last year, a cycle that often climaxes with long-range missile and nuclear tests. For reasons that have never been clear to me, North Korea has always preceded nuke tests with long-range missile tests. This was the case in 2006 (missile, nuke), 2009 (missile, nuke), and 2013 (missile, nuke). The exception to this pattern was the first test of the Unha-3 in April 2012, which broke up shortly after launch. And even then, there was only a ten-month gestation until the next nuke test.
Last spring was a time of intense speculation that North Korea would carry out its fourth nuclear test, and that this test would take some novel form, such as the use of a uranium-based device. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet, and like all of you, the reasons for that intrigue me. Whoever organized a pool on the test date has likely refunded all of the wagers advanced by now, and unless Kim Jong Un is even more impulsive and reckless than I assume him to be, a test is unlikely until mid-July at the soonest, to put some respectful distance between a test and Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul (scheduled for July 3rd and 4th).
I’m not a mudang, so I will offer no prediction as to when and whether North Korea will test this year. Eventually, however, North Korea will nuke off again. A moment when foreign policy has emerged as one of the Obama Administration’s greatest political vulnerabilities seems as a good a time as any. And an election year always presents opportunities for extortion.
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In an act of characteristic chutzpah, North Korea followed last weekend’s unannounced launch by “propos[ing] … that the two rival Koreas stop all military hostilities starting this week.” Yonhap called this “a rare conciliatory gesture toward South Korea ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul,” but noted that in exchange, South Korea would have to cancel Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Much to the disappointment of soldiers from Camp Red Cloud to Camp Carroll, South Korea’s Reunification Ministry said it wasn’t interested in that deal. The Foreign Ministry added that if North Korea tests a nuke, it will face the full wrath (or playful tickle) of U.N. sanctions South Korea has never really enforced.
And this time, dammit, they mean it.
The launches are a small complication for Japan, which has since begun another round of remittances-and-maybe-aid-for-hostages talks with North Korea in Beijing.
In Beijing, North Korea is expected to unveil details about a special panel to reinvestigate the abductions. Japanese newspapers have reported that Tokyo could announce the lifting of some of its own sanctions if the North’s investigation panel meets conditions set by Japan. [Yonhap]
Tokyo must have felt obligated to offer a pro forma protest last weekend’s test, but according to Yonhap, despite the protest, “the mood at the Beijing talks was not tense and the opening remarks were ended without angry arguments.” Tokyo may feel some obligation to protest again, but lately, its protests have sounded almost as insincere as its apologies.
“It was very regrettable that the North Korean side launched ballistic missiles on Sunday that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution,” Ihara said in his opening remarks at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Japan “lodges a stern protest and strongly demands that North Korea not fire ballistic missiles again in the future,” Ihara said.
However, Song insisted that North Korea does not recognize the U.N. resolutions, saying the Sunday launch “was smoothly conducted without minor effects on international shipping order and ecological environment in the region.” [Yonhap]
These incidents won’t derail the progress of those talks, although other things might. Japan knows North Korea tests missiles and violates U.N. resolutions. A certain willingness to overlook those concerns, and a certain willingness to alienate its allies by overlooking them, are both part of Tokyo’s calculations. And after all, what has President Obama ever done to bring Japan’s abducted citizens (or their remains) home?
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Meanwhile, each North Korean provocation, each declaration of its nuclear status, and each defiance of the Security Council should remind us that the Obama Administration refuses to direct the Treasury Department to expand sanctions against one of North Korea’s principal vulnerabilities – its weak links to the financial system. It isn’t just Japan, China, and South Korea that don’t take U.N. Security Council sanctions seriously; “their indispensable leader” doesn’t, either.
Bear in mind — this is the administration that promised us a more competent foreign policy that would contain crises by building strong alliances, international institutions, and precise weapons of non-lethal “smart”power. If it can’t get any of those things right, what else does it have to offer?
Even so, I hesitate to criticize the administration for not having a North Korea policy. What if it actually gets one? Weakened presidents tend to cut bad deals. Clinton did it in 1994, and W did it in 2007. Today, the Real Clear Politics average showed President Obama’s approval rating at negative 18.5% (that’s 55.5% against, 37% for), the highest net disapproval rating I’ve yet seen this President draw, ever. Those figures are two points below the President’s approval rating on the economy, and seven points below his overall approval rating.
As I said before, Americans hate foreign policy, and also, they hate the lack of one. [Update, 2 July: This morning, the President's approval rating on foreign policy plunged even further, to -21% in the RCP average. Once again, Americans don't like the concrete effects of policies they favor as abstractions.]
I hope the White House won’t confuse today’s political climate with that of 1994 or 2007. In 1994, we hadn’t yet watched North Korea renege on two denuclearization deals. In 2007, the national mood was tired and desperate, the media consensus favored another agreed framework, and no deal was beneath Bush’s standards.
Today, we’re seeing the beginnings of a backlash against the backlash against the Iraq War — a war the President campaigned on “ending,” and has since been forced to reenter. Thanks to his dithering in Syria, what started as a pro-democracy protest movement turned into a stage-three cancer of terrorism that metastasized into Lebanon and Iraq, and could spread to Jordan next. In Libya, anarchy was the consequence of refusing to expend diplomatic and financial capital on “nation-building.” Just as a premature retreat from a once-stabilized Iraq drew us back in, a premature retreat will draw us back into a not-yet-stable Afghanistan. Finally, the Bergdahl case shows that Americans expect their leaders to drive harder bargains than they often have.
And for the record, I think the President has probably chosen the best alternatives that remain in both Syria and Iraq, but only after squandering far better (or less-bad) options.
If the Administration thinks that a deal with North Korea now would “pause” another crisis it doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with, it should remember that any deal now would be made from a position of weakness. As such, it would validate criticism of the administration’s foreign policy as disengaged, reactive, and toothless. North Korea has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear weapons programs are non-negotiable, and has even amended its constitution to say so. What bargain, then, is there to be made? The deal would be an albatross around the President’s neck. Congress — including many Democrats — is rejecting appeasement and wants a harder line. So has the press, which wouldn’t give a North Korea deal the sympathetic coverage today that it gave Chris Hill’s in 2007.
Finally, as politically difficult as it would be to make a deal before November, it could be an even harder sell after November. A tough-minded Democrat like Bob Menendez would be a harder sell than a soft Republican like Dick Lugar. The days when the White House could count on the Lugar-Biden Axis and the Leach-Lantos Axis to pay for its fuel oil are over. Good luck getting the likes of Ed Royce or Bob Mendenez to go along with that.
Or, depending on how the next election goes, Bob Corker or Marco Rubio.
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* A well-informed reader writes in to argue that (1) we really don’t know what the KN-09 is, (2) its range is too short to be covered by the UNSC prohibition against ballistic missiles, and (3) even if the KN-09 is (as Lewis suggests) a clone of the Russian Kh-35, it’s a stretch to call it a cruise missile. My response to each of these points is (1) true, (2) also true, but the UNSC prohibits the development of all WMD delivery systems, and Lewis (whose knowledge of the weapons systems, at least, I respect) says it has the potential to be nuclear capable. Of course, open sources don’t describe the Kh-35 as nuclear capable, either, and its payload is small. That means that the North Koreans are probably years away from putting a nuke on it, but not from putting a chem or bio warhead on it.
As for (3), I’ve seen variable definitions of “cruise missile.” If the KN-09 is like the Kh-35, it’s a short-range, air-breathing, turbofan-powered, radar-guided anti-ship missile, similar to the U.S Harpoon. That fits my layman’s definition, but decide for yourself. For that matter, I’ve heard plenty of people call the old Nazi V-1 a cruise missile (it was guided by gyroscopes and impellers, and powered by a fascinating thing called a pulse jet, which I’m absolutely, positively going to build when I reach the Christopher Lloyd phase of my life).
The gist of this is that we can’t really be certain that all of these launches were UNSC violations, although North Korea must wish they all did. And if you want to find a violation, remember that UNSC 2094 says North Korea “shall not conduct any further launches that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests or any other provocation,” which is admittedly a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography. But in recognition of those uncertainties, I changed “flagrant violations” to “flagrant or potential violations.” After all, we can all agree that the SCUD launches were violations, and that North Korea was flagrant in the launches themselves, and in its dismissal of the UNSC resolutions.
Thanks to this reader for his concern for the accuracy of this blog.