Even those who have never negotiated with North Korea could have told the Obama administration, “I told you so.” After appearing to rush into an agreement just two weeks ago, the rug has been pulled out from under the White House by Pyongyang’s announcement that it will launch a “satellite” into orbit on April 15, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Of course, this satellite will be mounted on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile, and is thus a disguised missile test. This promises to scupper the food-for-nuke-freeze pact whereby the North would cease production at just one of its nuclear sites and forgo missile tests, in exchange for about 240,000 tons of food.
What was just a fortnight ago being hailed as a diplomatic coup for President Obama now is revealed for the sucker play it was. After three years of wisely refusing to get into the charade of negotiations with Pyongyang, Barack Obama finds himself firmly enshrined next to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as presidents who thought they could really make a change in the Vast Unknown that is North Korea. The bet in the Obama White House was that the death of Kim Jong Il and the accession of No. 3 Son, Kim Jong Eun provided an opening to shape a gangster regime into something more resembling a moderately rational government. It also was seen as an easy way to secure a diplomatic victory in an election year that will be shadowed by Afghanistan, Iran, and economic crisis.
Of course, the whole U.S. strategy begged the question of to what degree new leader Kim Jong Eun is merely a prop for his powerful uncle, Chang Sung Taek and the military. Since only the face on North Korea’s currency changed, there was never any realistic chance that the regime was ready to change its spots. What the agreement really did was to re-open the merry-go-round of negotiation followed by provocation followed by U.S. concession.
Neither side can afford to lose face in this standoff. If Kim backs down, he will be excoriated as a weakling who lacks his father’s wily success in running rings around the U.S. (even though he’s almost certainly a rubber stamp for the real power holders); thus, he will likely have to go ahead with the launch (unless mysterious “technical” problems derail it). If the North succeeds in its test, it will undoubtedly be encouraged to further blackmail and disruptive acts.
Yet the potential damage to President Obama is probably higher. Either he has to accept a de facto missile test, in contravention of his own agreement and numerous U.N. resolutions banning such activity, or he has to admit he got played, stick to his guns in refusing both aid and negotiations, and risk a more serious North Korean outburst (which could drag in South Korea and lead to armed conflict). Indeed, the Kim regime may find itself forced to respond to an American “abrogation” of the agreement, if only to show it can’t be trifled with. And if the Americans do unilaterally pull the plug on the agreement, then they might wind up looking like the ones negotiating in bad faith and escalating the crisis. This probably won’t end up in war, but it doesn’t bode well for dealing with the North over the next couple of years.
Playing ping-pyong like this tasks the skills of the best players. Anyone looking for a quick win is certain to wind up standing paralyzed at the table.