Archive for Missiles

Seoul finally decides it needs a missile defense plan

South Korea and the United States are drawing up a joint contingency plan to employ Washington’s missile defense (MD) system against growing threats from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, a government source here said Tuesday.

The joint contingency plan would employ not only missiles and surveillance equipment the U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea have been developing under their Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) project, but also key assets of the U.S. MD system, according to the source.

The U.S. air defense includes the X-band radar system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and the high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle, Global Hawk. [Yonhap]

Better late than never. Despite the objections of China, North Korea’s number one supplier of missile technology and a major exporter of chutzpah, the arrangement under discussion would have the U.S. sharing intelligence, technology, and backup, and the South supplying its flat refusal to join in an integrated air defense system with the U.S. and Japan. Seoul also seems to be leaning toward the deployment of THAAD.

Great. So now tell me who’s going to pay for it.

Is N. Korea building a missile submarine?

”A missile launch tube on a North Korean submarine was observed recently by U.S. intelligence agencies and is raising new concerns about the missile and nuclear threat from the communist regime in Pyongyang, according to two defense officials familiar with reports of the development.” [Free Beacon]

That would complicate the interception of North Korean missiles immensely.

Does this mean we’re paying for THAAD for South Korea?

The United States has wrapped up its survey of candidate sites for its advanced missile defense (MD) system to be deployed in South Korea, with a final decision likely to be made before their annual defense ministers’ meeting in October, sources said Monday.
Washington has made no secret that it is considering deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, an integral part of its MD system, to South Korea, citing evolving threats from North Korea. [Yonhap]

Does the “it” mean that U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for that expensive missile defense system, even as South Korea — burdened with far less public debt per capita than this country — continues to reduce the size of its own military? Well, apparently it does mean that.

But take some comfort in this — if you’re not South Korean, that is: South Korea, under pressure from the ChiComs and the neo-Soviets not to deploy THAAD, is saying that the system is only for the protection of U.S. Forces Korea. Tough luck, people of South Korea.

South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is popular enough that its name in the political lexicon predates even the Sunshine Policy — it’s known as the “Northern Wind.” Appeasement is not as popular as it was a decade ago, but it’s popular enough that I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [....]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.


[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that, Read more

Obama’s soft line on North Korea sanctions has failed.

AT LEAST ONE NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER thinks North Korea has never been nastier to the United States, and if its racist attacks on President Obama aren’t proof enough of that, maybe this message from North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador, Ri Tong-Il, is:

He accused the United States of using its military power to deliberately subvert any dialogue between North and South Korea — which is also a standard North Korean assertion. But in a variant of that theme, he said the American behavior “is reminding us of the historical lasting symptom of a mentally retarded patient.” Asked later to explain the analogy, Mr. Ri said, “The U.S. has been doing it for over six decades on our doorstep.” [N.Y. Times]

I don’t think I’ll ever get over my amazement that North Korea, a flagrant violator of U.N. Security Council resolutions that keeps 100,000 men, women, and children in political prison camps, is a member of the United Nations in good standing.

“Ambassador” Ri also threatened that Pyongyang would continue its nuclear weapons development if the U.S. continues its “threats” against North Korea, and demanded that the Security Council conduct an emergency session to review joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises.

Consider the absurdity of this. It’s the equivalent of Dennis Rodman telling his agent that unless he quits nagging him about going back to rehab, he’ll have no choice but to keep drinking and sue for breach of the peace … in Judge Joe Brown’s court.

Meanwhile, as John Kerry claims credit for keeping North Korea quiet, North Korea continues its quiet progression toward the development of an inter-continental ballistic missile, and a pad to test it from:

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters Tuesday he believes North Korea has continued to make “steady progress” in both its missile technology and nuclear capability.

So we find ourselves in a place where the sanctions we’ve imposed are woefully insufficient to slow or stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or to force it to negotiate away its nukes. Our State Department still says it isn’t interested in talks with a North Korea that rejects the premise of nuclear disarmament, and North Korea insists that it isn’t disarming. Intelligence estimates vary on North Korea’s capacity to miniaturize and deliver a nuclear weapon, but time clearly isn’t on our side. We also know that North Korea will sell any weapon it possesses to any willing customer, including helping listed state sponsors of terrorism with their nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

In his inauguration speech, President Obama promised to reach out his hand to rogue states if they would unclench their fists. In the years since then, the President has given North Korea the closest thing there is to immunity from sanctions for its attacks on South Korea, its missile tests, its nuclear tests, its arrests of harmless tourists and tour guides, and its proliferation and weapons smuggling.

I suppose I shouldn’t overstate my point here, because I’ve never seen that much significance in North Korea’s displays of good will or temperamental moderation for external audiences. In fact, my point is that in the North Korean context, gestures and atmospherics mean next to nothing. By now, it should be clear that those who counseled the President that he could move us closer to the realization of our nation’s interests by avoiding confrontation with Pyongyang, and by building a reserve of good toward it have sent him on a fool’s errand. North Korea is never meaner than when, fairly or unfairly, it perceives us to be soft.

Kim Jong Un stages missile test for the hard-of-hearing

“QUIET” NORTH KOREA has tested another missile to celebrate the anniversary of its survival of its invasion of South Korea. Based on the range, it was probably a SCUD, which makes the test a violation of UNSCR 1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094, in case you’re keeping track. According to Yonhap:

Saturday’s firing is the 15th rocket launch, and the sixth ballistic missile launch, by the North this year, which the international community condemned as a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

I think Yonhap meant to say that this is the 15th missile launch; after all, North Korea has probably fired at least 100 artillery rockets.* His Porcine Majesty was present to oversee the festivities in person. Knowing that our current Secretary of State can be a bit hard of hearing, he spoke in our direction:

“He examined a firing plan mapped out in consideration of the present location of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces’ bases in South Korea and under the simulated conditions of the battle to strike and destroy them before guiding the drill,” the KCNA said in an English dispatch.

AP correspondent Hyung-Jin Kim adds:

North Korea routinely test-fires missiles, artillery and rockets, but the number of weapons tests it has conducted this year is much higher than previous years. Outside analysts say this indicates that North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is handling things differently than his late father, Kim Jong Il, who sparingly used longer-range missile and nuclear tests as negotiating cards with the outside world to win concessions.

I suspect John Kerry already regrets his characterization of North Korea as “quiet.”

~   ~   ~

* Correction, July 28: An earlier version of this post stated that “North Korea has fired well over 100 of its 300-millimeter rockets.” While crunching the numbers on this, I realized that not all of these rockets were necessarily of the new 300-millimeter type, and that some of the artillery fired in the big barrage of July 14th was old-fashioned tube artillery. I suppose now you’re going to want to see the numbers crunched. The dates are hyperlinked to my sources.

  • 2/21     4     300-mm rockets
  • 2/27     4     SCUD missiles
  • 3/3       2     SCUD missiles
  • 3/4       4     300-mm rockets
  • 3/16   25     FROG rockets
  • 3/23   46     FROG rockets
  • 3/25     2     Nodong medium-range missiles
  • 6/26     3     300-mm rockets
  • 6/29     2     SCUD missile
  • 7/2       2     300-mm rockets
  • 7/3       2     300-mm rockets
  • 7/8       2     SCUD missile**
  • 7/13     2     SCUD missile
  • 7/14  >100  Rockets and artillery
  • 7/27     1     SCUD missile

** According to this N.Y. Times report, “North Korea has conducted 13 rocket and missile tests this year, launching a total of 90 projectiles, most of them fired from sites on the country’s east coast. Ten of those missiles were ballistic, including two Rodong missiles that were fired from Sukchon, north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on March 26 and flew 403 miles across the country before landing in waters off the east coast.”

Test something louder, Dear Leader. John Kerry still can’t hear you.

With the world erupting in the greatest cascade of escalating conflicts since 1975 and President Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at negative 21.2% — 11% lower than his overall (dis)approval rating — John Kerry eked out some time over the weekend to tempt fate with a dubious boast:

I just came back from China, where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the de-nuclearization. But we are working on that and moving forward. [John Kerry, Meet the Press, July 20, 2014]

If you’re in Seoul or certain parts of Washington, that clapping sound isn’t applause; it’s the smack of palms against foreheads. Kerry’s observation rubs a lamp that wiser men do not touch for fear of the genies they would rather not summon. One may as well compliment a politician’s moderate views during primary season, or announce one’s arrival in the cellblock by telling the gang leader that he seems a decent enough fellow. As if on cue, yesterday, North Korea threatened South Korea and the United States with “practical retaliatory actions of justice.”

As South Koreans are keenly aware, North Korea has not been quiet. Under the direct supervision of His Porcine Majesty, it has been testing SCUDs in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, along with massive barrages of artillery rockets. The U.S. and U.N. responses to this have been negligible.

At best, Kerry’s comment suggests poor coordination with one of our most important allies that still hasn’t been attacked this year. At worst, it suggests dangerously wishful and complacent thinking. It clearly means that Kerry neither knows nor cares much about North Korea. Such revelations cause unease among our allies, which is why the State Department had to “clarify” Kerry’s remarks yesterday:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is clearly concerned about North Korea’s provocative actions and did not mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue when he said Pyongyang is “quieter” than before, a government official said Monday.

“The secretary and we all have been very clear in condemning North Korea’s aggressive actions when they occur. We’ve talked recently about the ballistic missiles and how those were in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular press briefing.

“So I think the secretary has been very clear about our concern with North Korea’s activity,” she said in response to a question whether Kerry’s statement is a correct assessment of the situation. “He wasn’t trying to convey something different than we’ve conveyed in the past.” [Yonhap]

Concern, however, is no substitute for a coherence in matters of policy. Under Kerry’s tenure, the Obama Administration has shown a lack of seriousness about enforcing existing U.N. Security Council sanctions, even after North Korea was caught in flagrante delicto. It has imposed targeted financial sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus — and grudgingly enforced tough financial sanctions against Iran — while its tepid trade sanctions against North Korea are stuck in the 1970s. Treasury has sanctioned and blocked the assets of the top leaders of these nations, but none of the top leaders of North Korea.

Our government has designated Burma and Iran to be primary money laundering concerns, a potentially devastating measure that is the financial industry’s equivalent of a sex offender registration, isolating them from a community where reputation means everything. It has made no such designation with respect to North Korea, the world’s most prolific state sponsor of money laundering, counterfeiting, drug dealing, and illegal proliferation.

Most unforgivably, it has offered no policy response whatsoever to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s finding that Kim Jong Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity. Kerry is as deaf to the cries of the North Korean people as he is to roar of Kim Jong Un’s rockets. That is why North Korea continues to defy the Commission of Inquiry and all those who support its recommendations.

It’s as if this administration has no North Korea policy at all.

Meanwhile, as gravity of the threat from North Korea builds, President Park is so convinced that a North Korean provocation is imminent that she has directed her military commanders to return fire immediately if fired on by North Korea. This puts us one ill-advised temptation away from the miscalculation that could start Korean War II.

But perhaps, Koreans wonder, this isn’t what Kerry meant:

[C]ritics said [Kerry’s] assessment is far from reality. 

While characterizing the North as “quieter,” Kerry might have referred to the fact that the provocative nation has not carried out a nuclear test or a long-range rocket launch — the two main types of provocations Pyongyang has used to rattle the world.

Even without such major provocations, however, the North has continued to rattle its saber in recent months, firing a number of rockets, missiles and artillery rounds off its coast with some launches in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Last week, the council issued a statement condemning the North’s ballistic missile launches.  [Yonhap]

To claim success for Kim Jong Un’s failure to nuke off is to confuse coincidence with causation. There is no evidence that Kerry’s diplomacy has resulted in serious movement toward disarming North Korea. There is more evidence that the Obama Administration itself is moving away from denuclearization as an objective.

One could just as well claim that the House’s introduction last April of tough financial sanctions targeted at Kim Jong Un’s financial jugular may be deterring him from a nuclear test. Or, it could simply be that North Korea’s nuclear tests will conform to their previous interval of three to four years. A test of something louder would at least get the attention of everyone else in Washington who would otherwise forget that North Korea exists. One can hope that this time, Congress might just respond with more credible policy options than John Kerry has to offer.

“Happy Fourth of July!” – Kim Jong Un

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 (missilenuke), 2009 (missilenuke), and 2013 (missilenuke). 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.

~   ~   ~

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?

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

* 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.

N. Korea builds new pad, support facilities at Musudan-ri

Although it’s certainly possible (maybe even inevitable) that someone else has already noticed this, the first one who pointed it out to me was Jacob Bogle, who posted about it here and emailed me (thanks, Jacob). Here’s an overview of the area showing the old launch gantry and support areas. The new pad is marked with the orange arrows.

Musudan @ 7200 412

The new pad clearly shows the flame channel, similar to the one at the Seohae launch facility.  In April 2010, there was nothing there but empty fields:

Musudan New Pad @ 1000 410

Here’s what it looked like last April:

Musudan New Pad @ 1000 412

The angle of the shadows suggests a disturbing possibility — that rather than an above-ground launch pad, this is a silo, which would would significantly harden the site against air strikes. Whereas the shadow inside the flame channel suggests depth, there is no such shadow at the launch site itself, suggesting the absence of a gantry.  This image also suggests that construction was incomplete, but proceeding rapidly.

A nearby assembly area shows substantial evidence of new construction since the next most-recent image, from April 2010.

Musudan Assy. Area @ 2000 410

Musudan Assy. Area @ 2000 412

Similarly, this support area more ongoing construction … and a substantial amount of demolition, as well.  See the village on the center right?

Musudan Suppt. Area @ 2000 410

 

Now you don’t.  I wonder where those people were shoveled off to.

Musudan Suppt. Area @ 2000 412

Thanks again to Jacob for the find and the tip.

Update:  Imagery from 38 North suggests that this is indeed a silo of some sort.

Over at Foreign Policy …

Professor Sung Yoon Lee and I have a piece up discussing the world’s next, almost-certain-to-be-lost opportunity to respond to North Korea more effectively than having Susan Rice continue to beat her cranium against the Great Wall of China at the Security Council.  It’s a blend of Professor Lee’s prognostications about what the North will do next, and some of the financial constriction ideas I’ve been pushing as one of those Three C’s.

I’ll say this about FP — it’s certainly a great place to find an audience that isn’t, erm, accustomed to reading that sort of proposal, which makes me all the more appreciative that they decided to publish it.  I’m sure the comments will be just … fascinating.

I want to offer my sincere thanks to Professor Lee for his co-authorship, without which I doubt FP would have given this serious consideration.  Admittedly, there are many people who share his linguistic head start toward understanding the pathology of North Korea; very few who are his equal in judgment, intellect, and knowledge; and none who can communicate that understanding so cogently to those of us who aren’t Korean.  Honestly, I think his English is actually several levels better than mine.  That’s what makes him such a unique resource.

Update:  Here’s Prof. Lee saying many of the same things in 2009.

Guest Post: It Pays to Provoke

Prof. Sung Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University, a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, and a good friend of mine.  If you’re wondering how he lowered his standards so far so fast, the answer is that he wrote a comment that outgrew the comments section, and he graciously agreed to let me publish it as a guest post.

——————————————————-

North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile on Dec 12, 2012, was almost pre-ordained. For Pyongyang, it almost always pays to provoke, and never hurts to do it. What’s more, the constellation of events in mid-December made provoking its longstanding adversaries, Seoul and Washington, near irresistible.

Some past patterns to consider:

North Korea has a long history of provoking South Korea and the US at a time it determines to be in its strategic interest; that is, when its adversaries are weak or distracted. Pyongyang also delights in adding insult to injury by provoking on major holidays. It also finds Sundays an opportune time to cause trouble, thereby capturing the global headlines for the rest of the week and putting added pressure on its adversaries to respond with concessionary diplomacy.

For example, Pyongyang calculated that the US would find it exceedingly risky to escalate tension with a belligerent North Korea in 1968 and 1969, when the Vietnam War became a political liability back home. Hence, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968, and held the crew of 82 as captives for 11 months, often torturing them. North Korea sent 31 commandos into Seoul to assassinate the South Korean president earlier that month. That fall, Pyongyang dispatched hundreds of armed guerrilla fighters into the South to foment communist rebellion. North Korea shot down a US surveillance plane on April 15, 1969, on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. North Korea shot down a US helicopter in August, and ambushed and killed four US patrolmen along the Demilitarized Zone in Oct 1969. With each provocation, there was no military response of any sort by the US or South Korea.

As for marking holidays with a bang, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test came on October 9, 2006, the eve of Party Founding Day—one of the most important national holidays in North Korea. That led to the resumption of diplomatic negotiations by the George W Bush administration and, sequentially, new rounds of diplomacy, the lifting of financial sanctions, the resumption of food aid, and the removal of North Korea from the US State Dept. list of state sponsors of terrorism. This landmark event, Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, was preceded in July by a seven-rocket salute on America’s birthday, when it fired off six short-range missiles and one long-range missile on the morning of July 5, 2006 (the afternoon of July 4, Independence Day, in Washington DC). North Korea’s second nuclear test was on May 25, Memorial Day in the US. The 1983 Rangoon bombing also took place on the eve of Party Founding Day, which also happened to be a Sunday.

As for Pyongyang’s penchant for provoking on a Sunday, its first long-range missile test took place on Sunday, Aug 31, 1998. That led to a flurry of diplomatic activity on Washington’s part and the transfer from the US to North Korea of $177 million worth of food aid through the WFP (400,000 tons) in 1999, in return for the privilege of inspecting an empty cave in Kumchangri. The North’s third long-range missile test took place on Sunday, April 5, 2009. The North also blew up a Korean Airliner on Sunday, Nov 29, 1987.

Moreover, Pyongyang also likes to rain on Seoul’s parade. There are too many examples to mention—I’ll just cite one: On November 12, 2010, Pyongyang conducted a “poor man’s” uranium bomb test when it showcased its modern uranium enrichment facility to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, as Seoul was hosting what it had been touting as one of the most important international events ever, the G20 Summit.

Now, mid-December 2012, is a most opportune time for NK to set the table again vis-a-vis the powers in the region, raise the stakes with provocations, and try to paint the new leadership in DC, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow into a corner by creating a security problem that calls for concessionary diplomacy.

So, the real question is not why did Pyongyang conduct a long-range missile test, but why wouldn’t it have—provided the capability was there and the weather didn’t stand in the way? With exactly one week to go before South Korea’s presidential election, and five days before the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, and barely a month away from Kim Jong Un’s birthday on January 8, the temptation to stir things up must have been compelling.

Now is the best time for Pyongyang to jolt the South’s electorate, instill in the public the fear of possible war and the consequent loss of lives and treasure, and intimidate ordinary citizens into voting for the candidate of “peace and reconciliation,” the pro-North Korea leaning progressive Moon Jae-In, former chief of staff of President Roh Moo Hyun. North Korea has ten years of experience reaping rewards for periodic provocations against the South during the sunshine years, 1998-2008, when Seoul kept pumping unconditional aid worth nearly 10 billion dollars in cash, food, and fertilizer into Pyongyang’s palace economy. A return to that kind of favorable arrangement would enhance Kim Jong Un’s leadership credentials at home and enable the young inexperienced leader to deal with Seoul from a position of strength. 

The view that took hold in the past few days that perhaps Chinese pressure had forced Pyongyang to take a step back on the rocket launch and postpone it discounts history and Pyongyang’s strategic considerations. North Korea has never caved into Chinese pressure on matters of vital national interest. “Kwangmyungsong,” the name of the satellite, is after all the honorific name given to Kim Jong Il. Putting it aside to appease Beijing makes as much sense as Kim Jong Un going on a diet to placate Joshua. Moreover, North Korea has a long history of resorting to maskrovka, or strategic deception (e.g., suggesting “unification” talks one week before June 25, 1950; or asking Beijing to pass on a message to Washington that it seeks diplomatic talks with the US on the eve of the Rangoon bombing on Oct 9, 1983, etc.). By mentioning technical difficulties signaling it may postpone the test, Pyongyang was merely attempting to dupe its foes, a ploy that worked.

As for concerns of any military or harsh political reprisal, even in the most egregious provocations like assassination attempts on the South Korean president (January 1968 and October 1983) or shooting down a U.S. spy plane in international air space (April 1969), neither Seoul nor Washington has ever retaliated. In more recent times, even under the so-called “hardline” President Lee Myung Bak, the more Pyongyang has provoked Seoul, the more the Seoul has tried to appease Pyongyang. Less than two months after holding live ammunition drills in the wake of the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, President Lee announced that he would be open to a summit meeting with the North Korean leader. In May 2011, the North and South held secret meetings, with Seoul even asking for not just one, but a series of summits with Kim Jong Il.

Hence, North Korea was virtually bound to provoke when it did. In particular, it had powerful incentives to go ahead with the test before the December 19 election, ideally, on December 12, which would leave a one-week window of opportunity for the matter to matter in the presidential race without fading from memory. And it will probably not stop with just the missile test. I would now watch out for a follow-up provocation soon, perhaps even in the next day or two, for a special South Korean public-tailored provocation. If Kim Jong Un stops with just the missile blast, then that would indicate that Kim III is not nearly a formidable foe as Kim II or Kim I.

As to how to respond, I second Joshua’s “novel and serious” response idea. Like Joshua, I also feel those who actually make policy will probably shy away from it, even in the face of another nuclear test. Perhaps Pyongyang’s future demonstration of its capability to combine an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead may finally tilt this balance. In the meantime, I would suggest launching a sustained human rights campaign against the Kim regime and actively sponsoring efforts to transmit information into the North. I realize this is also quite unlikely to be implemented, for it will not bring about an immediate change in Pyongyang’s behavior or create the diplomacy-summitry-friendly atmospherics favored by statesmen. But nor will it lead to the collapse of the Kim regime, an eventuality that Pyongyang’s neighbors fear. Rather, what it will do is incentivize the North Korean people gradually to demand more of their own leaders, even if that demand is only a modest step in protecting their most basic civil liberties. It will also encourage more North Koreans to depart their gulag nation. And that means saving lives.

North Korea’s missile test will be Susan Rice’s big chance to be effective (for a change). Update: They did it.

As North Korea completes preparations for its latest ICBM test, the United States, Japan, and South Korea are trying to deter it with state-of-the art, laser-guided words.  Success, while unlikely, isn’t completely out of the question; after all, Kim Jong Un seemed to be preparing to conduct a nuke test several months ago, but never went through with it.  If Kim Jong Un really did defer a nuke test, I have no idea why, but it probably wasn’t because he wants a fresh start in his relations with Earth.

So far, the public face of U.S. deterrence has been to threaten what has never worked before — to take North Korea to the Security Council.  Our diplomats aren’t specifying what measures we’ll take against Kim Jong Un’s regime, but they’re hinting at more sanctions:

A senior security aide to President Barack Obama said Monday the U.S. is concentrating efforts in cooperation with South Korea, China, Russia and Japan to dissuade North Korea from pressing ahead with another rocket launch.

Gary Samore emphasized that if the launch takes place Washington will take “appropriate actions.”

“We’ve made it very clear that we consider this to be a very unfortunate provocative event, which is not going help North Korea nor the people of North Korea,” Samore told Yonhap News Agency.  [Yonhap]

Ed Royce calls the missile test a “wake-up call” that the administration’s policy toward North Korea has been ineffective, which is my first cue to link to my list of unused sanctions options and how those options fit into a more effective North Korea policy — one that could force even China to engage in good-faith efforts to disarm North Korea.  The Daily NK interviews other experts who also see the need for a more comprehensive sanctions effort:

Cho Bong Hyun, a researcher with the Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) Economic Research Institute told Daily NK, “If we do not cut off North Korea’s lines of credit then sanctions cannot be effective. Therefore, they will try to strengthen economic sanctions. The trade that is currently going normally could be faced with more difficult conditions, and humanitarian assistance could be stopped, too.”

Cho added, “In addition, it looks like a number more individuals and institutions will be added to the UN Security Council sanction list.”

Another anonymous researcher commented, “The best thing would be to apply financial sanctions in order to freeze North Korean funds, as was done with Banco Delta Asia (BDA). The BDA issue created fresh resistance in North Korea; however, freezing North Korean funds can still inflict a huge blow on their money channels.”

Some voices have suggested that the role of the UN North Korea Sanctions Committee should be improved, with disciplinary actions for those who fail to support it.

Baek Seung Joo of Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said, “Currently, sanctions against North Korea have been implemented across multi-faceted areas, but the problem is whether or not the sanctions are being implemented correctly. There need to be measures to warn those countries who are not actively taking part in the sanctions, and more monitoring of those countries which must apply them.”  [Daily NK]

These are good ideas; it’s too bad we won’t make use of them.  But at least Susan Rice will get a chance not to be our worst U.N. Ambassador since “Kim Jong Bill” Richardson.

I suppose I should explain.  The first rule of deterrence is progressive discipline — the principle that each similar misdeed will be met with more (not less) severe punishment.  Yet when North Korea launched its first missile of the Obama Administration in 2009, Rice did no better at the Security Council than a weak Presidential Statement.  The resolution she obtained after North Korea’s 2009 nuke test, UNSCR 1874, was little more than a warmed-over version of John Bolton’s UNSCR 1718, and was no better enforced (links to both resolutions in the sidebar).  When North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan, the best Rice could get was another non-binding Presidential Statement that didn’t even name North Korea.  When North Korea later shelled Yeongpyeong Island and killed four civilians, the Security Council did bupkes.  Ditto with respect to North Korea’s brazen nuclear proliferation during Rice’s tenure.  And when North Korea launched a missile earlier this year, the Administration quickly decided not to seek further Security Council action after China made clear its intent to block it.  Rice got eaten by the Chinese every time (sorry).

Depending on your perspective, you might also think that Rice disqualified herself from higher office for responding to a premeditated Al Qaeda attack by scapegoating one man’s exercise of his right to free speech.  Rice’s statements weren’t true, but they would be just as objectionable if they were.  Non-violent speech is never a defense to the culpability of those who practice violence.  It does not explain it, and it does not mitigate it.

Yet with all this having said, I could more easily abide a weakened and timid Susan Rice than the arrogant incompetence of John Kerry.  All of which is sad, because off-hand, I can think of several prominent Democrats and members of this administration who would be great for Secretary of State, starting with Samore.  Lieberman, you say?  No, that would be asking too much.

—————————————————-

Update, Dec. 12, 2012:  Reuters is reporting that North Korea launched it, and there seems to be a general consensus that the missile reached orbit.

“The satellite has entered the planned orbit,” a North Korean television news reader clad in traditional Korean garb announced, after which the station played patriotic songs with the lyrics “Chosun (Korea) does what it says”.

The rocket was launched just before 10 a.m. (0100 GMT), according to defense officials in South Korea and Japan, and was more successful than a rocket launched in April that flew for less than two minutes.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said that it “deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit”, the first time an independent body has verified North Korean claims.

The North claims that the rocket boosted a weather satellite into orbit.

Foreign observers are suggesting that this will boost Kim Jong Un’s domestic legitimacy inside North Korea, but I’m wary of these counterfactual analyses.  It will probably increase North Koreans’ sense of awe of their overlords, and cause them (and us) to grudgingly acknowledge their competence at matters they deem to be state priorities.  On the other hand, it could also serve to highlight the state’s comparative failure to feed the people ahead of a cold winter and a hungry spring.

Although the launch has probably helped the political right win election in Japan, my best guess is that a provocation that primarily threatens the United States will be popular among many South Koreans who harbor intense but latent anti-Americanism and pan-Korean nationalism.  To this extent this has a significant effect on the South Korean election, it’s more likely to help the political left, which supports appeasing North Korea.

North Korea’s technical success may mean that Americans will start to take North Korea seriously as a threat again. With Richard Lugar now out of the way, John McCain is getting a seat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where for years, Republicans had effectively abstained from the policy debate about North Korea. With Ed Royce and John McCain soon to be the most prominent Republican voices on foreign policy in Congress, maybe we’ll finally have a debate about whether appeasement, payoffs, unenforced U.N. resolutions, overlooking China’s duplicity, and Agreed Framework III are really the best way to deal with this problem.  For his part, Royce is saying the right thing — that we ought to scour the world’s moldiest corners for North Korean assets to freeze.

What would be a novel and serious way to respond to this?  First, we’d publicly announce that we’re not seeking any new resolutions at the U.N., and follow that with some off-the-record comments that the resolutions themselves are fine — the problem is that China willfully facilitates the violation of those resolutions.  Second, we’d make it clear that instead of wasting our energy with the U.N. and its weak (pro-appeasement South Korean) General Secretary, we’ll work with our allies and trading partners to isolate North Korea economically in the same way our Treasury Department did with the Banco Delta Asia sanctions of 2006, only much more comprehensively.  Third and most critically, we must use those sanctions to target and freeze the assets of North Korea’s foreign trading partners, including those in China and South Korea.

Given the North Korean regime’s dependency on foreign hard currency, if we pursued and enforced a policy like that, I doubt there would even be a North Korea two years from now.  So much the better for all of humanity.

 

Nuke Test Watch: One Disease, Many Symptoms

OK, I admit it — I’m disappointed in the North Koreans for wimping out:

North Korea on Tuesday ruled out an imminent nuclear weapon test, but vowed to expand and bolster its nuclear deterrence as well as its sovereign right to launch satellites, while slamming the Group of Eight nations’ condemnation of its failed long-range rocket launch in April.

In a remark given to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that the North didn’t have a plan for a nuclear test from the beginning, because it sought to launch a scientific and technical satellite.

“From the beginning, we did not envisage such a military measure as a nuclear test as we planned to launch a scientific and technical satellite for peaceful purposes,” said the official.

“Several weeks ago, we informed the U.S. side of the fact that we are restraining ourselves in real actions though we are no longer bound to the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement, taking the concerns voiced by the U.S. into consideration for the purpose of ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula necessary for focusing every effort on the peaceful development.” [Yonhap]

Well, damn. I wanted an election-year demonstration of how our desperate diplomatic appeals and offers failed to buy North Korea out of the headlines. I wanted someone else to point out how we allowed our obsession with treating each symptom to interfere with our diagnosis and treatment of the disease. I wanted someone else to wonder how it is that even now, our diplomats seem befuddled that North Korea doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to when appeased. And maybe I’ll still get what I want. Keep hope alive!

If North Korea puts this off, the most plausible reason is that China pressured North Korea to put it off. This will be both temporary and inadequate. If the North Koreans don’t test a nuke before Election Day, it’s a safe bet they’ll test one shortly thereafter.

Earlier Tuesday, James Hardy, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly said that images taken by two satellite companies, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, in the past month showed more earth being removed from a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea’s northeast.

There is a trope in this town that China — despite being the portal for the vast majority of North Korea’s regime-sustaining trade and aid, both legal and illegal — really can’t control North Korea. I’ve long suspected that China merely chooses not to control North Korea, except just before American and South Korean election seasons. But we’re never more than one excuse way from North Korea doing something completely different from what it just said.

Of course, most diseases have many symptoms. Have a look at what the North Koreans are doing at the Cape Musudan test site. Yes, 38 North can be interesting when it’s adding something new to the discussion.

On October 11, 2008, North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism for its progress toward nuclear disarmament. Discuss among yourselves.

What an Interesting Coincidence: China Arms N. Korea, We Arm Taiwan!

Shortly after the disclosure that China sold missile transporters to North Korea, in violation of UNSCR 1695, 1718, and 1874, the White House decides to reconsider a decision about weapons sales to Taiwan:

Taiwan said it welcomed the pledge by the United States to reconsider a proposed sale of new fighter jets to the island, a defence deal likely to upset Beijing. Taiwan has been pushing for the purchase of 66 new US-made F-16 fighter jets, but the deal has been stalled by Washington. The White House on Friday promised “serious consideration” to selling the jets in the wake of “the growing military threat to Taiwan”. [....]

Washington announced in September it would equip Taiwan’s 146 F-16 A/B jets with new technologies, in a $5.85 billion deal which falls short of the island’s fervent wish for 66 new F-16 C/Ds. [AFP]

I fear that certain personalities in the State Department will feel constrained from reversing this decision, because they’re only willing to upset the Chinese so much during one period. Some will even see it as a trade-off for offering protection to oppressed Chinese dissidents like Chen Guangcheng.

A campaigner against forced abortions and sterilizations, Chen spent four years in prison and then was kept in punitive house arrest for the past 20 months, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so. Clinton and other U.S. officials have repeatedly raised his case, though Beijing did nothing to abate the confinement, occasional beatings and other harsh treatment.

Let me counter with this question: so what if they’re upset? Will they go to war over this? Would caving to their arbitrary demands make conflict less likely, or more likely? Will they mobilize their Fifty Cent Army to demonize us even more than they are now? What’s the value of what passes for a “good” diplomatic relationship with the ChiComs? Let’s not pretend that this will ever be a genuinely cooperative diplomatic relationship, any more than we should fear that it would mean a breakdown in our commercial relationship. Both countries — but especially China — need that commercial relationship, so both parties will want to isolate it from our diplomatic differences. Our diplomatic relationship with China is never going to be genuinely cooperative, because China’s rulers have decided that they’re in a zero-sum competition with America for regional and global supremacy.

China will continue to frustrate America’s security interests and support regimes hostile to America as long as doing so doesn’t hurt China. It didn’t support al Qaeda because it has its own problem with Muslim insurgents. It supports North Korea because the oppression and starvation of millions of North Koreans don’t count as a “downside” to the men who rule in the Forbidden City. China supports North Korea because it gambles that America won’t attach a cost to its support, and because it believes it has enough influence over enough Americans to mitigate that cost. Nothing has proved China wrong about that so far.

Update: I see some of you reading this from China. Here’s something that might interest you:

I guess I can live without that traffic. For those of you who don’t speak Chinese, here’s some information on Chen’s cause, and the answer to an obvious question: just how incompetent do the police have to be to let a blind man to get away?

And former Biden staffer and occasional OFK reader Frank Jannuzi works for Amnesty now? Really?

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. Read more

North Korean Rocket Launch Fails.

This just in:

A U.S. official has confirmed that a North Korean long-range missile broke apart in air after launch. U.S. officials say they believe the missile is believed to have crashed into the sea, ABC News reports. South Korea’s Defense Ministry says that North Korea has fired a long-range rocket. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in a nationally televised news conference that the rocket was fired at 7:39 a.m.

Feel free to make your own bawdy dysfunction references. I have a comment section for that very purpose.

Update 1: So frankly, I hope the failure wasn’t accidental, but this still beats a successful test. And despite getting no scientific, propaganda, or marketing benefit from this test, North Korea will now face consequences for having done this despite being warned not to:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak plans to hold an emergency meeting of security related ministers at 9 a.m. to discuss countermeasures, officials said. The North had said it would launch the rocket between April 12-16 to put what it claims is a satellite into orbit to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

But South Korea, the United States and other regional powers had urged Pyongyang to call off the launch, seeing it as a pretext to disguise a long-range missile test, banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution. Foreign news reports said the U.N. Security Council plans to convene an emergency meeting. [Yonhap]

Update 2: Yes, the technology failed, but that doesn’t mean that North Korean missiles aren’t still deadly … to North Korean kids.

Not only was this a propaganda fiasco for Kim Jong Eun, but it could be an intelligence boon for us:

No element of the rocket reached space, said a U.S. official, who based that conclusion on data collected by the United States from its first few moments aloft. “This was supposed to be associated with (Kim Jong Un’s) ascension to power. So for this thing to fail … is incredibly embarrassing,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs for the U.S. National Security Council and now a Georgetown University professor.

The launch occurred at 7:39 a.m. Friday, both Yonhap and YTN reported, citing South Korean officials. Immediately afterward, the South Korean military dispatched helicopters and ships in an attempt to find debris related to the rocket launch, according to YTN.

Update 3: OFK has exclusive video of the launch:

This was such a colossal embarrassment for North Korea — at a time when it’s trying to build prestige for a new figurehead leader — that its leaders will be under extreme pressure to redeem themselves. A nuclear test is the very least we can expect in the next few months.

Update 4: The interesting thing here is that the North Koreans have admitted that the launch failed, which is new for North Korea. In 1998, for example, another North Korean missile test failed, but the North Koreans claimed that that its rocket lifted a satellite into orbit to play “immortal revolutionary hymns” to Kim Il Sung. I suppose some will call this concession a sign of some new North Korean perestroika or Pyongyang Spring; we’ve seen a false dawns predicted for even less. On the other hand, this is a regime that has recently cracked down on border-crossing — punishments now are much more severe than they were just two years ago — and which still goes to great lengths to deceive foreign media.

The more likely explanation is the same one that applies to North Korea’s decision to televise the World Cup live, only to have everyone with access to the broadcast see the North Korean team trounced. In North Korea, the groupthink probably favors boldness and punishes caution, conflating it with the denial of its own innate superiority. So North Korea gambled big that all of this hype would be a huge boost to its regime’s new figurehead on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, and it lost big. And unlike 1998, when the regime knew that the truth couldn’t get in, the regime is no longer capable of suppressing big news — and it is North Korea’s own regime that made this big news. Marcus Noland, interpreting refugee survey data published in Witness to Transformation, concludes that North Koreans are “increasingly bold about consuming foreign news at the same time that it becomes increasingly available.” National pride is probably about the last effective cohesive force in North Korean propaganda, so this failure probably won’t destabilize the regime, but it will reenforce the cynicism that probably prevails among North Koreans outside Pyongyang.

Even the AP’s Jean H. Lee, who has mostly filed warmed-over North Korean propaganda since her assignment to Pyongyang, had to write a story that was (a) newsworthy and (b) unfavorable for the regime, although you’ll see at the bottom of the story that seven other AP correspondents (really?) who are based in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington wrote parts of it:

The rocket’s destruction suggests the country has yet to master the technology needed to build long-range missiles that could threaten the United States. Still, worries remain about North Korea’s nuclear program amid reports that it may be planning an atomic test soon.

The launch is also a setback for the government of new leader Kim Jong Un, which had projected the satellite as a show of strength amid persistent economic hardship while he solidifies power following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, four months ago.

It will be interesting to see how the North Koreans react if Lee ends up putting her name on enough stories that fail to toe the regime’s line. Either way, it’s hard to see how this arrangement can possibly end well for the AP.

Attention now turns to the U.N.:

Clinton also made clear that the moment the rocket left the launchpad, Obama would drop efforts to engage North Korea and would instead pursue further international sanctions.

“Pyongyang has a clear choice: It can pursue peace and reap the benefits of closer ties with the international community, including the United States; or it can continue to face pressure and isolation. If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the Security Council to take further action,” she warned.

The failure of the test may ease pressure on President Obama to get firm action from the U.N., but then, this is an election year. If the Security Council can’t overcome Chinese stalling and do better than a presidential statement, Governor Romney will be able to make an issue of this. That argument would have particular merit now, as North Korea reportedly contemplates a nuclear test. A strong response now might still deter the next North Korean provocation in this endless loop, and would play well with most voters. The last time this cycle replayed, in 2009, the Security Council issued a presidential statement, and the North Koreans tested a nuke shortly thereafter.

A New Approach to North Korea: Contain, Constrict & Collapse

Sometime in the next few hours, North Korea will launch a prototype for an intercontinental ballistic missile, in flagrant violation of three U.N. Security Council resolutions. The North Koreans announced the launch two weeks after agreeing to a deal to freeze their missile and nuclear programs in exchange for U.S. food aid. It now seems they will follow their missile test with a nuclear test. Traditionally, Chinese obstructionism delays U.N. Security Council action by about three weeks after a North Korean missile test, and North Korea’s next nuke test usually follows that by six to eight weeks. A month later, there will be more U.N. action — this time, maybe even another resolution. The resolution won’t do much, because China will undercut sanctions by funding the regime, and will even let North Korea smuggle missile parts and luxury goods through Chinese ports.  After another six to nine months, the State Department will have convinced the President that the sanctions aren’t working and announce its latest agreement to give North Korea real aid in exchange for fake promises to disarm.  If we’re lucky, the next missile test won’t happen for another two years after that.

Read more

Obama Intercepts North Korean Missile with Experimental Laser-Guided Words

So President Obama’s visit to Seoul, the nuclear terrorism summit, and the DMZ has concluded without anything especially newsworthy taking place. Obama challenged North Korea to change its behavior and China to help coerce North Korea to change its behavior, but with relatively mild language that won’t deter North Korea from launching the thing. I had wondered whether the dynamic of this being an election year might tempt the President to show a little more spine than he or his predecessors have before, but his political incentive instead appears to have been to attract as little attention to the issue as possible while saying just enough to deflect criticisms from his Republican opponent.

As President Obama spoke, the North Koreans were speaking through their actions:

The North Koreans moved the main body of the Unha-3 rocket to the newly built launching station in Dongchang-ri, a village in northwest North Korea, as President Barack Obama and other world leaders traveled to Seoul over the weekend for a nuclear security summit meeting. Mr. Obama visited the border with North Korea on Sunday to show solidarity with South Korea and warn the North against further provocations. [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang-Hun]

The timing was almost certainly not coincidental. It was also classic North Korean behavior — provocation for the sake of provocation, motivated by little more than the existence of a high-profile event in, or high-profile visit to, South Korea. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sung Yoon-Lee takes note of the seamless continuity in North Korea’s cycle of extortion, both before and after Kim Jong Il’s death. It’s frankly enough to make you wonder just how much control Kim Jong Il exercised in the years between his stroke and his death. If anything, the real shift in North Korea’s behavior came around 2010, with the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong attacks, which suggests that North Korea’s real leadership transition preceded those events. On the other hand, meetings between His Late Porcine Majesty — or someone who looked exactly like him — and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, plus various Chinese apparatchiks, suggest that he wasn’t completely incapacitated, either.

Whoever is giving President Obama his briefings doesn’t seem to be much more certain than I am about who is really in charge, although it seems doubtful (at least, to me) that Kim Jong Eun is that person.

Mr. Obama said Sunday the situation in North Korea was still too “unsettled” for him to have developed an impression of Kim Jong Eun.

“It’s not clear exactly who’s calling the shots and what their long-term objectives are,” Mr. Obama said. “But regardless of the North Korean leadership, what is clear is they have not yet made that strategic pivot where they say to themselves, ‘What we’re doing isn’t working. It’s leading our country and our people down a dead end.’ ”

President Obama didn’t give us a tear-down-this-wall moment, but he did take this dig at the North Korean system:

“The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity,” he told U.S. troops stationed along the border, which is dotted with minefields and encased in barbed wire. [WSJ, Carol E. Lee]

The President’s words for China weren’t any clearer or more direct than the ones that haven’t worked before.

“My suggestion to China is that how they communicate their concerns to North Korea should probably reflect the fact that the approach that they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. [WSJ]

The president said he would attempt to enlist help from China, one of North Korea’s few allies, during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Explaining his message for Hu, Obama seemed to express frustration with past failures of this approach, saying the Chinese had seemed to be “turning a blind eye” and “trying to paper over” North Korea’s provocations.

“That’s obviously not working,” Obama said. [L.A. Times, Kathleen Hennessey]

“I believe that China is very sincere that it does not want to see North Korea with a nuclear weapon,” he told a news conference in Seoul before a global summit on nuclear security. “But it is going to have to act on that interest in a sustained way.” [Reuters]

There was also a not-too-veiled threat of more sanctions:

“Every time North Korea has violated a Security Council resolution it’s resulted in further isolation, tightening of sanctions,” Mr. Obama said. “I suspect that will happen this time as well. They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly to North Korea’s leadership in a speech Monday morning at a university in Seoul, saying the U.S. “has no hostile intent towards your country” but will not tolerate provocative acts from Pyongyang. “You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads,” Mr. Obama said. “It leads to more of the same.” [WSJ]

“Bad behavior will not be rewarded. There’s been a pattern for decades in which North Korea thought that if they acted provocatively, they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting,” Obama said at a news conference with Lee several hours after the visit to the DMZ. “We’re going to break that habit,” he said. [LAT]

If I may be so bold as to offer some gratis advice to the President, I’ll just suggest that if another U.N. resolution is all he really has in mind, all it will do is to highlight the farcical character of our response. (There are, of course, better options that don’t involve the direct use of force.)

Another card I hope he’ll play is to green-light Japan to shoot the rocket down, in the unlikely event that the Japanese are actually serious about this. Forcing Japan to cancel its annual Cherry Blossom Festival should be justification enough, even if Fukushima was probably a more important reason. A Japanese response would have the benefit of not involving us directly, and of setting Japan irreversibly down the path of protecting itself rather than perpetually relying on American taxpayers for its defense, it would also show us some fascinating reactions. For one thing, we’d get to see just how many South Koreans would rally to North Korea’s side out of sheer blind nationalism and hatred of Japan. We’d be denied that perverse joy if South Korea shoots it down, but we’d still get to enjoy watching China call on us to restrain one of our allies, as we shrug our shoulders and say it’s not our problem, and then ship the next consignments of PAC-3 Patriots and Standard-3s to Yokohama and Pusan.

And while we’re at it, Taipei.