Pyongyang, we have a problem…

Critics of a recent deal between North Korea and the United States had barely caught their breath before an announcement today by Pyongyang that North Korea plans to launch a satellite atop a long-range rocket in mid-April. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a setback. But it’s also premature to write the whole thing off.

I was asked by a reporter barely two weeks ago about how “cheap” a deal this was for the United States. It’s true. Food aid for a moratorium on some of the most provocative activities the North engages in? No silver bullet of course, but it’s low effort to earn the possibility of a new round of engagement. Past history shows that by and large when the U.S. and North Korea are talking, bad things are less likely to occur.

This time around, though, it seems not only that Pyongyang is cynically exploiting a lack of clarity in the agreement, but that North Korea is also probing the lengths to which it can go before Washington throws up its arms in exasperation. What we know of the so-called “Leap Day” agreement was that the DPRK committed to suspend “long-range missile launches” among other things. But, perhaps we left an unintended loophole.

North Korea now claims that the planned launch is to place a satellite into orbit as part of its peaceful space program – and therefore not part of the deal. The distinction is a canard. There are indeed technical differences between a space launch and a missile, but similar to the thin line between enriching uranium for reactor fuel or enriching uranium for bombs, if you master one technology you have more or less mastered the other.

The question now is what should the United States do?

I have no doubt the rocket will be launched. I was in Pyongyang during the July 2006 missile tests, and again in February 2009 when North Korea told our delegation they planned a rocket launch that April. The pride and seriousness with which they hold their rocket program is hard to overstate. Pyongyang is now on record that it will carry out the launch. Their planned timing coincides with national celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and Great Leader. Therefore, the launch is now a matter of national pride. It also means an important measure of credibility and legitimacy for the new leader, Kim Jong Un, who clearly still has some power consolidation to do. These are important reasons to understand why the North is taking this step.

These reasons don’t change the fact, however, that such a launch is a violation of at least the spirit of the recent agreement. It puts the U.S. in a precarious position – walk away from the deal and thus have no clear path for re-engaging the North on critical issues; or hold our nose and figure out a way to live with the launch while maintaining some credible stance on the arrangement?

There is no easy answer either diplomatically or politically. But in dealing with North Korea, it’s usually best to take the long view. When faced with duplicity or brinksmanship, we must respond with creativity and keep our eye on the long-range goal. The launch will be a violation of the agreement, but there are still elements of it that are worth preserving. In-country teams of nuclear inspectors, food aid with monitors and tracking (it is assumed), suspension of uranium enrichment and nuclear tests – these are factors that are valuable steps to regaining some durable engagement with the North.

Engagement has proven to be more effective than not with respect to the North’s nuclear work. Certainly not perfect, but better. The April launch should by no means go completely unanswered, and it may be worth suggesting that that too be conducted with international observation. After all, if it is truly a space launch, why not allow international spectators? In the end, though, the United States – with its allies in the region – should design a way to keep engagement and diplomacy intact. The alternative is worse.

US Navy Official Photo