Over the last several weeks, the North Koreans have issued three separate statements, all emanating from different parts of the state apparatus; they can be found on the KCNA website on the dates cited below. All are intended to show resolve, not only through words but through domestic political mobilization as well.
The targets appear to be the US and South Korea. In the case of the US, the speech by Tom Donilon at the Asia Society in New York—reproduced in part below—suggests the prospect of still more strategic patience, perhaps with an even sharper edge. Donilon not only strongly underlines the deterrent but adds that transfer of nuclear weapons or materials will also be treated as actionable. Showing that the UN Security Council resolution was a floor, not a ceiling, Treasury added sanctions against the Foreign Trade Bank, an entity we doubt is doing much business with the US at the moment; we will explain the logic of the new sanctions in a later post.
The burning of bridges with the South is even more unfortunate. There was greater prospect of accommodation from the Park administration; the incoming president might have been able to lead, soften or at least complement US policy. For example, the US clearly is not going to provide any assistance to the North after the botched Leap Year deal of last year. But South Korea might have been able to.
But we can’t help wondering whether the ultimate target is China. By throwing multiple steering wheels out the window—Tom Schelling’s advice for how to win at the game of chicken–the leadership is clearly pushing the edges of its relationship with China. Does the new Chinese leadership really want to stand side-by-side with a North Korea making statements of this sort? If not, watching the Young Leader back down from recent rhetoric is going to be interesting to watch.
A review of the bidding.
On March 5, the military led off with a statement from a spokesman for the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army. The operative component of this statement included three actions:
- First, the statement promised “second and third strong practical counteractions…” As in 2009, the nuclear test is portrayed as the first “counteraction” to the UNSC sanctions. One possibility would be some kind of intermediate or shorter-term missile exercise.
- From March 11—ironically, the date that the computer simulation exercises of Key Resolve were to begin—the KPA Supreme Command nullified the armistice; as we noted in an earlier post, North Korea chipped way at the armistice institutions beginning in the 1990s and has actually withdrawn or nullified it before.
- Finally, the KPA Supreme Command announced it would halt the activities of the Panmunjom mission of the KPA, a body set up after the KPA officially withdrew from participation in the Military Armistice Commission in 1994 (it had stopped attending meetings since 1991). This measure was assumed to include cutting a military hotline, but that hotline appears to be operational.
According to Rodong Sinmun, “army-people rallies” were called to read the statement and rally support. At a rally in Pyongyang, one general is reported by Rodong Sinmun to have stated that “intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other rockets capable of attacking pre-set targets have been armed with various types of atomic warheads” and that “missile warheads have been made lighter and smaller, and can turn Washington and other lairs of forces that collaborate with the U.S. imperialists into a ‘sea of fire.’”
The extent of actual mobilization is unclear, but in a series of stories the DailyNK has reported that government and party organizations and agricultural cooperatives have been placed on emergency status, Red Worker-Peasant Militia and Young Red Guards have been called up, and civil defense preparations have been launched.
Next up was a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 7. Again, the format of the statement was similar, outlining the state of play as seen from Pyongyang—with a focus on the exercises—and then turning to the concrete measures in response. Again, three actions were highlighted:
- First, North Korea claimed a right to “preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country.” The statement added bite to the nullification of the armistice on the conventional side by stating that the DPRK will take “military actions for self-defense against any target any moment, not restrained by the Armistice Agreement.” Again, the suggestion is of a right to pre-empt given that it was highly unlikely that the exercises would risk violating North Korean territory.
- Second, the sanctions are linked to an accelerated timetable for undertaking the “more powerful second and third countermeasures”—whatever those prove to be.
- Finally, the statement issues an undefined threat against the Security Council sanctions, saying that those too will be viewed as a provocation. Rather the UN should dismantle the United Nations Command and set in train a process for ending the technical state of war.
The possibility of some kind of conventional action along the Northern Limit Line was signaled by two visits Kim Jong Un took to a coastal artillery unit located on an islet off South Hwanghae Province. The battery sits across from Paengnyo’ng Island, one of the five major South Korean islands that sit just south of the NLL. In addition to the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and the head of the General Political Department of the KPA, the entourage also included Kim Yo’ng-ch’o'l, head of the General Reconnaissance Bureau (North Korea Leadership Watch outlines the details). The North Korean airforce also burned precious fuel in an unprecedented number of sorties.
Last up, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK)—tasked with managing North-South relations, issued its statement on South Korea’s complicity in the sanctions resolution and also took a number of steps formally overturning prior agreements. But before outlining those, let’s skip to the conclusion: “the DPRK will never miss the golden chance to wage a great war for national reunification.”
In the meantime:
- First, the DPRK abrogates all agreements on nonaggression reached between the north and the south. This would include the 1972 Joint Communique and the 1991 “Basic Agreement” (Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression and Exchanges And Cooperation Between the South and the North), a masterfully-crafted agreement that contained the seeds of subsequent efforts at North-South engagement.
- Second, the DPRK nullified the joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, an agreement reached in 1992 following the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons by President Bush Sr. To say that this agreement was in abeyance is hardly news, since the agreement stated:
- “The South and the North shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.
- The South and the North shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes.
- The South and the North shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”
- In addition, the agreement set up a South-North joint nuclear control commission that was DOA.
- Finally, the DPRK will close the Panmunjom liaison channel between the north and the south that provided for Red Cross talks—sporadic at best—on humanitarian issues and particularly family unification. The manipulation of family reunions to extract rents from South Korea is probably one of the most callous of all actions the country has taken over the years; the channel had become moribund under the LMB government but now is formally shut.
- Interestingly, Kaesong continues to operate.
To their credit, South Korean authorities were not impressed. Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Army Major General Kim Yong-hyun not only promised swift retaliation for any attack, but raised the stakes by saying that if provoked, South Korea would attack the North’s “command leadership.”
We understand the utility of showing resolve through radical statements and domestic mobilization. But to what end ultimately? Tom Donilon’s suggestion that North Korea reflect on Burma is—to be frank—laughable. As we predicted earlier, strategic patience as far as we can see. The South’s “trustpolitik”? Forget about it. Oberlin’s Sheila Mioshi Jager offers up the most plausible wag-the-dog domestic explanation. But we suspect the real game might be with China as it contemplates whether to double down on Kim Junior or finally get serious.
Remarks by Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to the President – As Prepared for Delivery
The Asia Society, New York
Monday, March 11, 2013
Let me spend a few moments on North Korea.
For sixty years, the United States has been committed to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. This means deterring North Korean aggression and protecting our allies. And it means the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state; nor will we stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States. The international community has made clear that there will be consequences for North Korea’s flagrant violation of its international obligations, as the UN Security Council did again unanimously just last week in approving new sanctions in response to the North’s recent provocative nuclear test.
U.S. policy toward North Korea rests on four key principles:
First, close and expanded cooperation with Japan and South Korea. The unity that our three countries have forged in the face of North Korea’s provocations-unity reaffirmed by President Park and Prime Minister Abe -is as crucial to the search for a diplomatic solution as it is to deterrence. The days when North Korea could exploit any seams between our three governments are over.
And let me add that the prospects for a peaceful resolution also will require close U.S. coordination with China’s new government. We believe that no country, including China, should conduct “business as usual” with a North Korea that threatens its neighbors. China’s interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula argues for a clear path to ending North Korea’s nuclear program. We welcome China’s support at the UN Security Council and its continued insistence that North Korea completely, verifiably and irreversibly abandon its WMD and ballistic missile programs.
Second, the United States refuses to reward bad North Korean behavior. The United States will not play the game of accepting empty promises or yielding to threats. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has said, we won’t buy the same horse twice. We have made clear our openness to authentic negotiations with North Korea. In return, however, we’ve only seen provocations and extreme rhetoric. To get the assistance it desperately needs and the respect it claims it wants, North Korea will have to change course. Otherwise, the United States will continue to work with allies and partners to tighten national and international sanctions to impede North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Today, the Treasury Department is announcing the imposition of U.S. sanctions against the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, the country’s primary foreign exchange bank, for its role in supporting North Korea’s WMD program.
By now it is clear that the provocations, escalations and poor choices of North Korea’s leaders are not only making their country less secure – they are condemning their people to a level of poverty that stands in stark contrast not only to South Korea, but every other country in East Asia.
Third, we unequivocally reaffirm that the United States is committed to the defense of our homeland and our allies. Recently, North Korean officials have made some highly provocative statements. North Korea’s claims may be hyperbolic – but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: we will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea. This includes not only any North Korean use of weapons of mass destruction-but also, as the President made clear, their transfer of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to other states or non-state entities. Such actions would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies and we will hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences.
Finally, the United States will continue to encourage North Korea to choose a better path. As he has said many times, President Obama came to office willing to offer his hand to those who would unclench their fists. The United States is prepared to help North Korea develop its economy and feed its people-but it must change its current course. The United States is prepared to sit down with North Korea to negotiate and to implement the commitments that they and the United States have made. We ask only that Pyongyang prove its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to show it will abide by its commitments, honor its words, and respect international law.
Anyone who doubts the President’s commitment needs look no further than Burma, where new leaders have begun a process of reform. President Obama’s historic visit to Rangoon is proof of our readiness to start transforming a relationship marked by hostility into one of greater cooperation. Burma has already received billions in debt forgiveness, large-scale development assistance, and an influx of new investment. While the work of reform is ongoing, Burma has already broken out of isolation and opened the door to a far better future for its people in partnership with its neighbors and with the United States. And, as President Obama said in his speech to the people of Burma, we will continue to stand with those who continue to support rights, democracy and reform. So I urge North Korea’s leaders to reflect on Burma’s experience.