A Need for Restraint Over North Korea’s Satellite

Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Globe on 4/5)

When North Korea declared that it was planning to launch a satellite, the United States should have shrugged and gone about its business. Instead, the Obama administration has exaggerated the importance of the launch by treating it as a national security threat.

There’s little reason to doubt North Korea’s claim that it simply wants to put a satellite into space. True, the rocket that puts the satellite into orbit is indistinguishable from a long-range missile. Only the nose cone and the trajectory are different. In 1998, North Korea also declared a rocket a satellite, and eventually even the Pentagon agreed. This year’s launch, on a modified rocket, is likely to be the same. Getting a satellite in orbit would make North Korea only the 12th country in the world to do so, a point of pride for Pyongyang.

North Korea has signed the appropriate international protocols governing satellites and given the proper notification. The UN resolution sanctioning North Korea after its 2006 nuclear test does not explicitly forbid satellite launches. That North Korea is attempting to abide by this resolution – even if the satellite launch provides it with valuable data for its missile program – suggests that Pyongyang still wants to engage with the international community.

Regardless of its ultimate reasons for launching the rocket, North Korea’s missile program remains shoddy. Its 1998 test failed. Its 2006 test failed. It is 0 for 2. Given its battered economy and the global recession, Pyongyang is not likely to get a robust program in place any time soon.

The Obama administration should keep its eyes on the prize: negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and advancing the discussions on the normalization of bilateral relations. Pyongyang has made some progress in dismantlement. Talks are now stymied over verification. But these are not insuperable problems.

President Obama should look beyond this satellite launch in the same way that the Bush administration looked beyond the 2006 nuclear test. The 180-degree turn in Bush administration policy in 2006 led to concrete progress in denuclearization and a modest warming in relations. The Obama administration should move with all deliberate haste in picking up the thread of bilateral discussions with Pyongyang.

The post-launch challenge, however, will be for the United States to forge a consensus position in the six-party negotiations. Japan has pledged to shoot down anything that encroaches on its territory. South Korea will use the launch to justify joining the Proliferation Security Initiative. North Korea views these as acts of war. China and Russia, while unhappy about their putative ally’s provocative behavior, are unwilling to ratchet up the tension in the region.

The Obama administration must work closely with its Japanese and South Korean allies to soothe their fears and, at the same time, provide a bold set of initiatives that can re-engage North Korea, as well as China and Russia, in the regional negotiations. The United States should be looking at technical compromises that can break the deadlock over verification.

At the same time, the administration should push forward with the larger engagement package, which includes a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice, concrete steps toward normalization, and a roadmap that Pyongyang can follow to become integrated in the global economy. A side deal on North Korea’s missile program, which was on the table at the end of the Clinton administration, might also go a long way toward allaying both Japanese and South Korean concerns.

North Korea is planning two kinds of tests. The first test may or may not put a satellite into orbit. The second test – of the Obama administration’s resolve – is similarly unpredictable. Adopting new sanctions, issuing harsh condemnations, and pulling out of negotiations with North Korea, however satisfying such actions might be, have yielded few results in the past.

It took Bush six years to come to this realization. Let’s hope that Obama is a faster learner.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.