A few news stories from the last week deserve highlighting. Despite the fact that the regime appears to be making nice at the moment, all suggest the ongoing pressures to simply contain North Korea.
First, Yonhap (via Craig Scanlan’s Asia Security Watch site) broke the story of the arrest of two North Korean agents in the Ukraine. The agents were assigned to North Korea’s trade office in Belarus, but were caught trying to penetrate the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau in Dnipropetrovsk. This unit had been in charge of rocket and satellite development and was responsible for making the 11,000-kilometer range R-36M multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile during the Soviet era; the two were apparently interested in liquid fuel engine systems. One good piece of news is that the former Soviet system did not appear as leaky as is often feared. The researcher contacted by the North Korean agents notified Ukrainian authorities and set up a sting.
In New York, the UN Security Council quietly extended the term of the Panel of Experts on North Korea for another year; we posted last month on the expectation of a final report, and last year on the drama surrounding the release of the two earlier reports (see here for a discussion of the 2010 report and here, here and here for a review of last year’s effort). Hopefully, this report will either be released or leaked. In the past Beijing has held up the reports because of their embarrassing content, including suggestions that illicit North Korean trade with Iran was facilitated by China. The fact that China signed on to an extension is at least some small sign of Beijing’s on-going pique at the missile launch. We cannot rule out the possibility that Pyonyang’s “concession” of not pursuing a nuclear test “at this time” is due to pressure from China.
And finally, both China and North Korea seem a little slow in learning an old-fashioned realist lesson: that provocation tends to increase—not weaken—the resolve of your adversaries. Scott Harold at RAND brought to our attention an interesting dance around the issue of OPCON transfer, which was delayed in 2010 following the sinking of the Cheonan and is now scheduled for 2015. The Chosun Ilbo reported a leak from a South Korean source that U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. James Thurman had proposed that Seoul and Washington keep the Combined Forces Command even after the handover of full operational control of Korean troops in December 2015. Thurman purportedly proposed that it should be headed by a Korean officer instead of the USFK chief, as at present, which would also be a fairly radical departure for the US. After breaking the story, the conservative newspaper then endorsed the proposal, or at least argued it was worthy of close study.
Not so fast; cross-town rival Donga-A Ilbo raised the issue at a regularly-scheduled Ministry of Defense press briefing and the spokesman denied they had received any such proposal. Of course, there could be some complex politics at play here as the issue is floated and Saenuri considers how it will play out electorally. It doesn’t seem to us that there could be any gain from jumping this way prior to the election. But the issue has now been raised and we cannot rule out further modifications in the transfer if perceived risk from North Korea remains high.