The Deal and the Rocket: Understanding North Korea’s “Inconsistency”

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North Korean soldier on tank saluting, courtesy of NOS Nieuws/Flickr

It is becoming all too common for North Korea to engage in provocative behavior in order to grab international attention. This time around though, the announcement by North Korea on March 16, 2012, to conduct a satellite launch seemed to catch the Obama administration particularly off guard. For the United States, this latest provocation went completely against the spirit of the Leap Day Deal agreed to only two weeks before in which North Korea would freeze its uranium enrichment activities and place a moratorium on further missile and nuclear tests in exchange for U.S. humanitarian assistance.

While this satellite launch could be expected for a country committed to military-first politics and in the context of the celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the pursuit of the Leap Day Deal comes across as a redundant effort. Following the satellite launch, reports are now emerging that North Korea will conduct a nuclear test which will have further implications. Given that the satellite launch and a nuclear test would scupper any agreement with the United States, why did North Korea bother to show up and negotiate the deal?

We may consider two scenarios that rest upon how to interpret the meaning of the Leap Day Deal. The first is that this reveals inconsistencies in the regime’s decision-making process; specifically that Kim Jong-un is unable to establish his own strategy. This is based on the belief that there is little logic in concluding an agreement with the United States shortly before making the announcement to conduct the satellite launch. From North Korea’s perspective, it would surely make more sense to carry out the provocation first, draw in attention from the international community, and then try to negotiate later. Concluding an agreement and then breaking it within such a short period would yield few tangible benefits. Such inconsistencies in the decision-making process would also indicate that some kind of internal debate or even power struggle exists within the regime.[i]

An important point to consider is that the satellite launch was apparently decided upon by Kim Jong-il before his death in December 2011, which would mean Kim Jong-un had little choice but to carry it out. In this regard, the second scenario holds that the pursuit of the Lead Day Deal reflects efforts by the Kim Jong-un regime to signal its true intentions to initiate dialogue. This tells us that the Kim Jong-un regime is struggling to cope with the legacy of his father’s rule while also seeking to develop his own policies. Knowing that the satellite launch would be considered an extremely provocative act, the Leap Day Deal was a way to indicate to the United States that it has sincere intentions to come back to the Six-Party Talks.[ii]

The second scenario looks convincing as there have been consistent signs that North Korea has been attempting to make changes in its economy. Since 2010, Pyongyang has emphasized the importance of developing light industries and improving the people’s standard of living. In particular, the 2012 Joint New Year Editorial envisions “building a powerful country with the knowledge-based economy.”[iii] Although the North Korean leadership has been very reluctant to change from its military-first politics to something else, say economy-first politics, there are three ways in which it is facing strong pressure for change that if neglected in the long-term will affect the stability of the regime.[iv]

The first is that Kim Jong-un needs to fulfill his father’s promise to the country that it will achieve the status of kangsung daeguk or “strong and prosperous nation” in 2012, which includes political, economic, and military successes.[v] This is a critical moment for Kim Jong-un as demonstrating the great achievements of his father and grandfather is closely connected to his own legitimacy. In order to demonstrate such achievements, major foreign capital flows will be required as North Korea lacks enough resources to initiate any type of development project by itself. The only way to secure enough capital is through economic opening. The regime’s strong emphasis on economic cooperation with China, such as the recent opening of the economic trading zones on Hwanggumpyong Island and Rason, shows that Pyongyang is already on this track.

The second factor is the growth of the illegal private markets in which much of the population is involved in. One study using data from North Korea refugees found that during 2006-2007 households in North Korea earned 74.6% of income from the markets.[vi] For years the North Korean regime has fought a losing battle to control the markets, its most notable attempt was the disastrous currency revaluation in 2009. Yet despite the tough measures and punishments, the markets persist and the regime is losing the initiative. If the Kim Jong-un regime attempts to further control the markets, it will only face greater failure.

The third factor is China. Beijing has pressured Pyongyang for years to reform the economy through both words and actions, such as by establishing the joint free trade areas. It will be difficult in the future for the Kim Jong-un regime to continue to ignore China’s efforts to initiate reforms. Considering these pressing factors, the North Korean regime needs a secure international environment in order to resolve the domestic and external pressures by carrying out reforms of its failing state economy.

Whichever scenario is true, it seems likely that the Kim Jong-un regime will come back to the negotiating table. Either, as in the first scenario he will place emphasis back on dialogue or as in the second scenario he will resume negotiations as he signaled. Two key questions need to be considered at this point. 1) How can the international community avoid provocations and make the regime return to the negotiating table as soon as possible? 2) What should be prepared by the international community were negotiations to resume?

Concerning the first question, it is crucial to present a strong and consistent message to North Korea that the United States and other countries will not tolerate any further provocations. Regardless of Kim Jong-un’s intentions or the political situation in Pyongyang, a single and powerful message from the international community must be clear so that the regime will not miscalculate the strategic position of each country. This would be the only way to prevent North Korea from contemplating further provocations as a means for securing both domestic and foreign political benefits. The UN Security Council Presidential Statement of April 16 following the satellite launch deserves a positive evaluation. Regarding the next move of the Kim Jong-un regime, several reports suggest that there will be further provocations; either a nuclear test or another attempt at a satellite launch. The North Korean regime has even recently threatened to use “unprecedented peculiar means and methods” to attack South Korea.[vii] It is clear that Kim Jong-un is in a position where he will have to make a demonstration of power in order to make up for the embarrassing failure of the April 13 satellite launch. However, a strong and consistent message from the international community will limit the range of provocations North Korea could attempt.

A more important task is related to the second question. Talks may seem a distant prospect now, but North Korea will likely come back to the negotiating table as mentioned above. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the regime will take the path that the international community will expect: giving up its reliance on nuclear weapons. It is possible that like his father, Kim Jong-un has no intention to give up his nuclear weapons and will only try to get international support by “selling” elements of his nuclear program.

In this regard, the international community needs to carefully observe the next moves of Kim Jong-un and identify his decisions regarding the regime’s strategy for survival. In making a judgment, it is crucial to have close strategic coordination among the five countries, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Additionally, the five countries also need to share their wisdom and come up with a blueprint which outlines the conditions in which North Korea could be committed to implementing complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program. With the international community now on the same page as indicated by the recent UN Security Council Presidential Statement, there exists a golden opportunity to initiate this multilateral effort.


[i] Jihwan Hwang, 2012, “What is North Korea’s Strategic Calculation in Launching its Satellite?” EAI Smart Q&A Memo, April 12.

[ii] Sung-bae Kim, “Kim Jong-un’s Choice and the Future of the Korean Peninsula” (Forthcoming), EAI Smart Q&A Memo

[iii] Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), 2012, “Joint New Year Editorial,” January 1.

[iv] Dongho Jo, 2012, “Why the Korean Peninsula Will Be Stable in 2012 and What South Korea Should Do,” EAI Smart Q&A Memo, February 06

[v] Young-Sun Ha, 2011, “Path to an Advanced North Korea by 2032: Building a Complex Networked State,” EAI Asia Security Initiative Working Paper No. 10, April 13.

[vi] Byung-Yeon Kim, 2010, “Markets, Bribery, and Regime Stability in North Korea,” EAI Asia Security Initiative Working Paper No. 4, April.

[vii] KCNA, 2012, “KPA Supreme Command Warns Lee Myung Bak Group of Quick Action,” April 23.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Getting Out of the Military-First Dilemmas
Blame Game Under Fire: Parsing South Korean Debate on North Korea Policy
A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit ISN Security Watch and the ISN’s featured editorial content.

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