Jeffrey LewisRockets and the Leap Day Deal

I am beginning to understand how the US-DPRK “Leap Day Deal” came apart .

You have to hand it to the North Koreans.  They screwed the Obama Administration.

But the Obama Administration didn’t do itself any favors, either.


To understand what happened, the most important observation relates to process.

I had, somewhat carelessly, assumed that the unilateral DPRK and US statements represented some sort of agreement — not least because overeager officials called it the Leap Day Deal.  A deal, however, is something one negotiates — which is to say actual human beings sit in a little room and argue about specific words to appear on paper.  In theory, that process allows the two parties to determine that they really are in agreement.  But that isn’t what happened at all!

Rather, the process went something like this. Glyn Davies and Ford Hart show up at the Westin in Beijing on February 22 for “bilateral exploratory talks” with Kim Gye Gwan et al on February 23.  The talks go surprisingly well — the two sides talk for six and half hours that Thursday, including a substantive dinner.

They meet again on the morning of February 24 for another couple of hours, before the US side lunches with Wu Daiwei and then heads home.  One of the officials, probably Davies, will later describe the unexpectedly long meeting with the North Koreans as “extra innings.” You can recreate the agenda yourself by looking at the press statements by Davies on 22, 23 and 24 (am|pm) February, with an assist from the 29 February background briefing.

Now, Davies and Kim do not reach an agreement in Beijing, nor do they draft any kind of agreed statement.  Before Davies heads home (with obligatory stops in Seoul and Tokyo), a reporter asks him whether the parties achieved a “breakthrough.”  Davis says:
“Oh my goodness, no. I think the word breakthrough goes way too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anyone using the word breakthrough.”

And then Leap Day happens.

On February 29, the North Koreans issue a statement that basically summarizes the discussion Beijing, ending with this little zinger:

The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.

Now, of course, the DPRK agreed to no such thing in Beijing. More on  that in a moment.

The Administration responds with simultaneously releases its own statement (the time stamp on the US statement is actually slightly before that on the KCNA item), presumably the sort of things that the US had indicated might be forthcoming if the DPRK took what US officials called “pre-steps.”  (Apparently, only the Bush Administration insisted on preconditions for negotiations.)


The DPRK and US statements, however, contain significant differences.

Some reporters immediately notice those differences and start asking questions in both a 29 February background briefing and in Toria Nuland’s 1 March press briefing. One reporter, for instance, asks the anonymous senior official, probably Davies, why the DPRK statement didn’t make any reference to the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.  Senior Official One say he doesn’t know:

The negotiating record’s clear on that. We did talk about that. We expect that the IAEA will also confirm the disablement of that reactor and associated facilities. I can’t speak to why they didn’t include it; these were, after all, unilateral statements that each side made, and that is an issue that we will clearly have to come back on. But there’s no doubt in our mind that they’ve agreed to that, and we will expect that that will be addressed … [Emphasis added.]

Let’s look at that claim again: “I can’t speak to why they didn’t include it; these were, after all, unilateral statements that each side made, and that is an issue that we will clearly have to come back on.” The State Department official is really saying “I don’t  have the slightest idea what the North Koreans statement means.  You’d have to ask the North Koreans.  I know what we want it to mean.  I guess, now that you mention it, we may need to ask them about that.”

The North Koreans, on the other hand, seemed to know exactly what they meant, which is probably why they omitted “of any kind” from the statement.  Why the US side didn’t notice it, I can’t explain.


Now, Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch.  The Nelson Report, the irreplaceable daily record of US Asia policy, has one official after another making that point very, very clear.  One Obama Administration official told Nelson that “in the process of negotiating the Feb. 29 agreement, Special Envoy Amb. Glyn Davies, and Ford Hart, explicitly, directly warned DPRK lead-negotiator Kim Gye-gwan that any missile test, for any purpose, would violate the terms of the agreement under negotiation…”

The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed.

Kim Gye Gwan, for example, can say exactly the same thing: “in the process of negotiating the Feb. 29 agreement, Special Envoy [Kim Gye Gwan ] explicitly, directly warned [US] lead-negotiator [Glyn Davies] that any missile test, for any purpose, would [not] violate the terms of the agreement under negotiation.”  In fact, the DPRK now has a statement that says precisely that:

The DPRK’s satellite launch is an issue quite different from the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement. The DPRK had already consistently clarified at the three rounds of the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks that the satellite launch is not included in the long-range missile launch.

The statement released by North Korea on February 29 carefully omits the agreed language from 1999 — of any kind —  that probably expressed the equivalence of space and missile launches. That should have been a signal.


You have to hand it to the North Koreans.  They’ve backed the Obama Administration into a quite a corner.

The US claimed that the “nutritional assistance” — what the hell is wrong with the phrase “food aid” anyway? — was not linked to the outcome Six Party Talks. The IAEA has inspectors packing their suitcases for spring in Yongbyon at the invitation of the DPRK.

Does the US blow this up over one stupid rocket launch? It’s not a very pretty state of affairs, is it?

What’s amazing is that the senior officials from the Obama Administration still don’t get it.  One Administration official told Chris Nelson that “The DPRK delegation left Beijing without a scintilla of doubt that a satellite test would doom this entire process…”

This word “scintilla.”  I am not sure it means what you think it does.

The DPRK delegation understood the US position, but the DPRK leadership just calculated it might get both the satellite launch and enough Plumpy’nut  to keep Kim Jong Un at his fighting weight.  The DPRK leadership probably concluded that there wasn’t much downside, even if the Administration wasn’t bluffing, given that collapsed negotiations usually end in a DPRK nuclear test, followed by another round of negotiations.

The Administration’s mistake here was not to try to reach an agreement with North Korea, but for thinking it was this easy.  Just blow into Beijing, lay down the law, have a nice dinner with Kim Gye Gwan and then hit Seoul and Tokyo on the way home.  And don’t forget to pick up a new tie for the Nobel Prize ceremony.

In both briefings on 29 February and 1 March, Administration officials were just too confident to notice all the discrepancies that reporters were pointing out.  Here is a rather lengthy exchange between a reporter and Nuland that captures that confidence.  Emphasis, as always, is mine:

QUESTION: Yeah. Going back to the subtle differences between the two statements, your statement says that the North Koreans will stop nuclear activities generally speaking. And then they say that they’ll stop uranium enrichment specifically. Is plutonium activity also a part of this? Is that your understanding?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Have you – you’ve read our statement, right?

QUESTION: Yes, I have. But their – the North Koreans say they’ll stop uranium enrichment. They don’t say anything about plutonium. So I’m wondering if there – is there any disagreement here or is this – what’s your understanding?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have their statement in front of us, but are you talking about the part about the five-megawatt —

QUESTION: It’s the – basically the last section of their statement says: “agreed to moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity.” Whereas your statement says that: “agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile test, nuclear test, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon.” So —

MS. NULAND: Including uranium enrichment activities.

QUESTION: Including uranium enrichment activities. So I’m asking, is plutonium part of this agreement as well?



MS. NULAND: Most definitely.

QUESTION: Follow up on that?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: So there’s some differences in statements issued by both sides. So are you ready to meet with North Koreans again to qualify the difference, or do you expect that this type of issue might be brought up in the next meeting with North Koreans on the nutritional aid?

MS. NULAND: No. As we clarified in the background briefing that we gave yesterday – and I would refer you to it if you didn’t get a chance to participate – the next step on the nuclear side with regard to the commitments that are made by both sides in these statements is that they now need to be implemented by the North Korean side and that implementation needs to be verified by the, So we are looking to the DPRK, as a next step, to invite the IAEA in to verify that all the steps that we’ve agreed upon, all the steps you see reflected in the U.S. statement, are, in fact, being implemented. So that’s the next step on that side.

With regard to nutritional assistance, we do still have a little bit of technical work to do and we’re going to try to do it through existing channels before we can ship.

QUESTION: So you don’t see the need to clarify the difference at this point?

MS. NULAND: We don’t see any difference. The only thing that is effectively sort of left out, if you will, with regard to the DPRK’s statement is this issue of the five-megawatt reactor, and from our perspective, the U.S. and the DPRK both know that the DPRK agreed that the IAEA would be allowed in to confirm the disablement of the five-megawatt reactor and associated facilities. So that’s something that we’re expecting also to be on the list when the IAEA goes to North Korea.

To get the full effect, watch the briefing starting at 32:10.  Nuland just isn’t prepared for the issue of discrepancies.

Remember, the DPRK signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that prohibited the possession of “nuclear reprocessing facilities.”  That was on February 19, 1992.  On May 20, 1992, South Korean officials confronted the DPRK officials about the continued construction on Yongbyon.  DPRK officials explained that it was not a reprocessing facility, but a “radiochemical laboratory” for research purposes.

You have to have the DPRK statement in front you.  The details matter.


The politics of this are, of course, terrible.  If the Administration doesn’t collapse what remains of the deal — and there are some useful pieces left including the possibility of an IAEA presence at Yongbyon — they are going to get killed in the press.

Of course, the North Koreans have plenty of options for mischief, including testing a Musudan IRBM or perhaps this road-mobile ICBM of lore.  And then there is always the option to blow a little more plutonium.  Maybe they want to try out an HEU bomb.  And of course they can always sink a South Korean warship, shell an island or revive some of their nasty habits from the 1970s.  Really, the possibilities are endless.

Had things gone down differently — had North Korean conducted the satellite launch for Kim Il Sung’s birthday, then announced compliance with the pre-steps — that might have worked.  A blanket exception for space launches is a problem, of course, but what’s one measly Unha launch among parties to an armistice?

Then again, if you can launch your rocket, embarrass Barack Obama and then gorge yourself on therapeutic food products, well that’s seems like the best option to me.


By the way, I notice that the Boston Herald published an op-ed by Peter Brookes titled, “N. Korea welshes on food aid deal.”

Usually, the author doesn’t write the headline, so to whoever chose that slur: go to hell.


  1. anon (History)


    Are you of Welsh origin? Very testy.

    Otherwise, good article.


    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am.

    • Cameron (History)

      Yeah that got a letter to the editor.

      As for the substance of the statements, if you’re China, how are you not working to push this back down? It feels like North Korea is pushing the archipelgo states into an even closer alliance with the US. How is that helpful to Chinese foreign interests?

      As for domestic fallout, I’m not sure the Obama Admin is going to take to much heat on this, Iran is where people are focusing if they’re focusing on FP at all. I’m sorry that they got burned by North Korea, you’re right that they got a good short term gain out of it, but long term is Obama going to make another offer like this? North Korea may end up wishing they had tried a little more diplomacy and a little less 12 year old gotcha word play.

  2. Cthippo (History)

    I suppose the only upside to this is that no one seems to be paying much attention in the US. Everyone is too focused on what Rick Santorium said to worry about things that might, you know, matter.

  3. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Thanks for this very illuminating post! I was getting together some talking points about the launch and I can see I am going to have to totally side step the “legality” of the test… This was an excellent heads up.

  4. bob (History)

    How about a neologism? I propose “to nork” . . .

    You all should know the definition by now.

    • joshua (History)

      That works, especially if the past participle is nork’d.

  5. Eve (History)


  6. Seb (History)

    Jeffrey, I don’t know if this is something you’ve heard before and know to be wrong, but I had thought that although people tend to assume that it has something to do with the Welsh being untrustworthy, the term apparently derives from 17th century London bookies slang (hence the archaic spelling in the UK): someone who Welched on their debt was a bookie who, having made the mistake of taking on bets that they couldn’t cover, promptly fled to Wales, it being generally harder to pursue them there and drag them off to debtors prison. Or so I was told by my English teacher back in the day.

    Although that etymology doesn’t casts aspersions on the nature of the Welsh, I suppose the implication that Wales is too much of a backwater for it to be worth while chasing someone with a civil case isn’t particularly nice.

  7. George William Herbert (History)


    NK taking advantage of expected Israeli strike?

    Or trying to distract the US from Iran a bit at the moment?

  8. George William Herbert (History)

    Stepping back…

    What’s the case that NK intended this, really?

    Alternate theory being that the NKs thought this was more preliminary and signaled their position, and the US side just overreached on interpreting the situation?

    Given the long history of NK negotiations in bad faith it’s tempting to do what you did, but … Reading it clean I just don’t know.

  9. Mark Lincoln (History)

    I don’t see what the gripe is about. The DPRK agreed to suspend military activities and the Obama administration is embarrassed because it never thought about the satellite program.

    This is a misapprehension going back to the last US administration which also failed to consider satellite launch attempts as anything other than ICBM tests.

    Satellites remain a ‘prestige’ item in the third world even if they have long been ‘ho-hum’ to the major powers.

    The only lesson to be learned is assume nothing when dealing with the DPRK.

    Remember that Korea “won” it’s first war with the USA by the simple expedient of refusing to recognize the US invasion which had captured five forts and crushed the 300 or so defenders.

    Korea ‘won’ because the USA assumed that military adventure could open trade with the Hermit Kingdom. The US ‘trade mission’ composed of five warships and a landing force of some 650 men could take forts, but it could not achieve US goals.

    What IS our goal with the DPRK? Do we know?

    What to do when the bird does not sing?
    Nobunaga would have it killed, Hideyoshi would have forced it to sing, Ieyasu said ‘wait.’

    China is wise to understand that the big danger from the DPRK is the threat of precipitous collapse, not military adventure.

    Better it should show off with a gesture than the usual mad military act.

  10. Daryl Press (History)


    This is a really helpful post.

    I think, though, that you’re giving the NK’s too much credit here: what they did (if it was intentional) was not as clever as you’ve described.

    Had this been a negotiation over a commercial agreement (e.g. between apple and intel) and if Apple said in the course of the negotiation: “We believe our agreement means X” and Intel didn’t explicitly agree, and then meaning X never appeared in the contract, then Intel would have been “clever” and would get some short-term gain. Because if Apple tried to enforce its understanding of the agreement by taking Intel to court, the court would presumably enforce the contract as written. So Intel would have pulled a fast one by allowing Apple to enter the contract with an incorrect view of the terms — though intel may regret this short term victory.

    But in the international sphere, trying to be clever like this makes even less sense. If the US thought that the deal meant “no satellite launches”, and conveyed that to the NK negotiators, and the NKs allowed that misunderstanding to persist (i.e., by not correcting the Americans during the negotiations and saying it didn’t include satellite launches), then the result of that “clever” trick is simply to make the US believe the deal has been violated — regardless of what the NK wrote down on paper.

    That’s the key difference between the commercial and the diplomatic sphere: in the commercial sphere, the courts will generally enforce what’s on paper; in the diplomatic sphere, the purpose of the negotiations is simply to find a mutually acceptable agreement, which both sides can voluntarily comply with. If the US feels tricked, and if the US no longer sees this deal as a way to achieve its objectives — i.e., halting (some) nuclear and missile activities, seeking an opening to the new NK leader — then the result will likely be the same as if NK had written in the agreement “no satellite launches” and violated it. What matters is that the US felt tricked.

    This is one of those cases in which we risk overly-appling the legalistic frameworks from domestic politics and lose track of what negotiations like this (mostly) are: efforts to find mutual shared interests. For the North Koreans or anyone else, playing word games — or leaving out key phrases from statements — doesn’t work well in the latter domain — especially in bilateral agreements — because ultimately these are just “scraps of paper” whose power comes from the shared goals — if they exist — of those who sign them.


    • John Schilling (History)

      The North Koreans gain nothing from this in regards to strictly bilateral negotiations (or other interactions) with the United States, true. They may gain where third parties are involved, and note that where North Korea is concerned an awful lot hinges on N-party talks where N>2.

      In this case, there may already be relevant parties sympathetic to North Korean satellite launches, on account of satellite launches being peaceful and a right extended to all nations under the OST no matter what the bullies at the UNSC say. We’ve seen that sentiment here. If in addition to that, the United States insists on taking a hard line regarding a “violation” of a rule it looks like Obama’s negotiators pulled out of their nether regions, the Norks may succeed in prying a few American allies away from subsequent negotiations. Even sowing a bit of dissent within the United States, which isn’t all that united over foreign policy.

      This sort of thing makes the United States look bad. In diplomacy, looking bad really does matter even if there aren’t any courts with enforcement authority involved. Maybe especially when there aren’t any such courts involved.

    • Daryl Press (History)


      I agree that in diplomacy looking bad matters. But I still don’t see why this makes the US or the Obama Administration look bad.

      If we tell our allies: “Look, we were 100% clear with the Norks that what we were ‘buying’ for our food aid was an agreement that covered satellite launches. The Norks understood that. NK either reneged — in our interpretation — or was extremely evasive — in the most generous interpretation.” What aspect of that interaction should build sympathy for the NKs?

      True, there are those who always cheer when the underdog flips the bird to the major powers on the UNSC — but those countries (and people) are always tilted against us (unless we bribe them too). So what was really lost by us with respect to them? Our actual allies in the Pacific will presumably see it as piece of evidence #46,812 that you simply can’t make deals with Pyongyang. What was lost by us with respect to them?

      If we take a step back, all that really happened here is that we thought we bought something, then before we could even pay for it, Pyongyang either violated the agreement or clarified that we had no agreement. Doesn’t seem that clever to me.

      Last, if there was no clever victory here by the NKs, then was this just another example of trivial aggravating behavior by NK (as opposed to the non-trivial stuff, like sinking ships), or is there any evidence at all to push forward something smart that Joel Wit raised in a post here a week ago: is this a sign of deep incoherence at the senior levels in Pyongyang?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Rather than incoherence, I suspect this is a “dead hand” in operation — Kim Jong Il made the decision to launch the satellite for Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which probably means no one in the system can reverse the order other than the Dear(ly Departed) Leader himself.

      And, since he’s dead, that means the rocket go boom.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Well, it is an example of something a colleague and I were discussing here in London. Short-term tactical victories that come at the long-term expense of the country. The Iranians do this too — they think they’ve very cleverly obstructed something, but in fact they’ve isolated themselves. I mean, look at North Korea, this is not a successful state by almost any measure except the exercise of political control and even that may prove illusory.

      Anyway, I made your very point to some North Koreans today.

    • Johnboy (History)

      Jeff: “Short-term tactical victories that come at the long-term expense of the country. The Iranians do this too — they think they’ve very cleverly obstructed something, but in fact they’ve isolated themselves.”

      Well, let’s be fair: it’s not just the “rogues” that do this.

      Consider how NATO turned a “Right2Protect” UNSC resolution into sustained bombing campaign against the Libyan Armed Forces.

      They certainly achieved their short-term goal (scratch out the name “Gaddafi, M”) but the chances of any similar R2P resolutions being passed by the council is now exactly zero.

      Russia and China will veto, precisely because they just witnessed “the West” saying one thing (R2P) and then doing another (Take That, You Bastard!).

  11. Mike Munk (History)

    So why did State refuse to answer whether NK got OK for a satelitte launch well before the Feb agreement?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      They denied it.

  12. Spruce (History)

    A lot of the discussion around North Korea here seems to assume that they evaluate possibilities and results in foreign policy according to what they get in that arena. Yet, to me that seems to be a false assumption — and something that results in wrong conclusions on whether the North Koreans got what they wanted and being perpetually surprised by their actions. The best description of North Korean thinking that I’ve seen, and something I also I agree with, is that their actions are governed by three goals with a very clear order of priority. The primarily goal is the survival of the regime, secondary goal is independence of action from other countries, and tetriary goal (and clearly coming after the first two) is feeding the population.

    The first two goals require some more details. The main threat the regime sees is a heavy air campaign against its assets, followed by ground attack — something like in First Gulf War or in Afghanistan. Their nuclear weapon program and the deployment of artillery to threaten Seoul are attempts to making this too expensive for attackers. In addition, they are trying to make any air campaign as difficult as possible by dispersion and digging facilities into mountains. However, their main defence is the complete militarization of the country. The North Korean society is engineered so that in effect the whole poplation would take part one way or another in the war. They consider that make this strategy possible and as effective as possible, they need to keep the fighting spirit of the population up at all times. And to do that, they must keep the country in constant siege mentality. That has the additional advantage that it helps to prevent any popular revolution against the regime. This kind of logic results in the actions that make the Norht Korean actions seem irrational if one assumes that they operate with the same goals as other countries. They try to toe a very fine line: they don’t want to start a war, but they want to keep the people thinking that war could start at any moment. Thus, incidents like Cheonan and Yeonpeyong whenever things seem to be moving to too calm conditions.

    The second goal of independence of action is something enshrined in the Juche ideology as a very important tenet. It’s hard to say whether the North Korean leadership really belives in it or uses it as a tool, but it has little effect on the result. They want to retain as much independence as possible from other countries. And that includes China — they want to be as independent as possible without jeopardising the first goal from them. So, in any deals they make they want to be made with their terms. As is apparent from the way the deal was made (practically a one-sided announcement) and the way they consider the rocket launch. In fact, it’s likely totally irrelevant whether Americans made clear that they would consider it a breach of the treaty. It probably woulnd’t have made any difference if every second sentence they said was that. The way North Korea views this treaty (and anything similar) is that they agreed only to what they said and on the terms they dictate. And from their point of view whether US thinks something is breaching the treaty is utterly irrelevant.

    So, from this point of view, the whole thing is likely considered a success by North Koreans whether US considers this agreement broken or not. They have managed to make an attack somewhat less likely and they have once again asserted that they are independent of other countries by the way they announced the treaty and are dealing with their terms. If the US still fulfills its end, they’ve also gotten some food aid from it. If it doesn’t, it just helps to prop up that siege mentality internally and to further highlight the independence of North Korea. Whatever it might do in external relationships is cheap price for these successes from their point of view.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Spruce writes:

      The best description of North Korean thinking that I’ve seen, and something I also I agree with, is that their actions are governed by three goals with a very clear order of priority. The primarily goal is the survival of the regime, secondary goal is independence of action from other countries, and tetriary goal (and clearly coming after the first two) is feeding the population.

      Right, this is the classic 1990s/2000s view of NK.

      The hope has been, and remains, that they would understand that they’re working themselves into a corner where failing to do #3 adequately enough will destabilize #1, which then destroys #2. Their long term survival as a regime depends on not starving their population to death, among other things because eventually even the best kept army mutinies in the face of starvation, even if it’s fed better than the populace. It also depends on not provoking the catastrophic military intervention you described… being moderately provocative probably deters such an intervention, but at some point that inverts and further action invites (eventually, demands) one.

      The frigate sinking and the island bombardment were (in my read) two of the three strikes they get before they start getting shelled seriously themselves by the South Koreans, and I think they finally figured that one out. Things seemed to have calmed down a lot since then, and I think everyone not in the know was hoping that there was some serious back channel negotiations in play to set more stable parameters going forwards.

      If the way the negotiations happened was merely mishap, and NK fundamentally does intend to reduce tensions and engage, this is not disaster. Regardless of one’s views on the similarity of IRBM/ICBM systems and launch vehicles, or the UNSC no-missiles resolutions, there is a fundamental difference between a missile test fired over Japan and a launch vehicle fired south over open ocean for thousands of kilometers. It might be a missile test masquerading as a launch vehicle (which, given the technology overlap in their program, is practically true even if not intentionally so). But it’s not as aggressively provocative in the same way that earlier launches were. It’s possible to read this as a giant multi-party mistake, and NK as having been consistent on this point, and that NK is still interested in a long-term de-escalation policy.

      The flip side of that is maybe they aren’t, they could still be playing the same bad old game, still don’t get it. In which case this launch is somewhere around strike two and a half, and even a minor unintentional follow-on incident of some sort (patrol boat crosses border, accidental rifle discharge on DMZ, etc) could trigger a serious response. It may even be strike three, though as it looks like we’re ramping up for Iran it would seem unlikely that the US would be about to launch an attack on NK this quarter, getting us into two more regional wars at once… Obama, Biden, Panetta, Petreus, and everyone else around there seem pretty non-stupid on things like that.

    • Spruce (History)

      My problem with that line of thinking is that I can’t see a reason to think that North Korea has changed it’s basic approach. It might have realised that the last two incidents was pushing things too far, but that would much more likely call for tactical re-evaluation of the methods to obtain its goals, not a change in the goals themselves. The unfortunate thing is that from their point of view their strategy is mostly working. They’ve kept their independence and their regime together much better than a lot of other countries despite the strength they consider is against them. Especially noteworthy is that this seems to be a first time a modern dictatorship manages herediatry transfer of power to third generation. Because of this I would consider it more likely that even if they try to increase the food aid to them, they are likely to keep the other two pillars of their foreign policy intact.

      Those have been their basic approach to things for a long time and generally one needs a pretty big reason to change such a fundamental part of one’s thinking — that’s just human nature. And looking at the recent history and trying to think from NK point of view, I can’t see influences that would’ve been strong enough for such a change.

      While it is possible to read this as multi-party failure, it is also possible to read this outcome as NK doing its business as it has always done pretty much expected and intended as a result. It would also seem a simpler explanation for the sequence of events. And if they figured out that those two incidents were indeed two out of three strikes, wouldn’t it make sense that they just transfer the strategy that (from their point of view) has worked to them to a slightly different arena? I can’t see any kind of serious retaliation being possible against NK even if it’s concluded that they’ve done the deal with bad faith, so this seems a minor-risk version of the game they’ve been playing for decades.

    • rwendland (History)


      The launch vehicle fired south isn’t really over open ocean for thousands of kilometers well clear of land – it goes over the Philippines and the stages’ splashdown zones seem to be a bit of a squeeze to avoid land.

      Using Google Earth, David Wright’s map of the splashdown zones, and the IMO notice with coordinates:

      I make it that the edge of the stage 1 splashdown zone is roughly around 55 nmi off the South Korean mainland, and stage 2 splashdown zone edge seems roughly 65 nmi off the Philippines mainland.

      Seems a squeeze to avoid land. The Unha-2 stage 2 splashdown range of 3800 km would have been in the Philippines, but David Wright speculates a heavier third stage for a polar orbit launch shortening the splashdown distances.

      South Korea also launches south on a similar path, it would be interesting to compare with its splashdown zones if anyone knows them.

      Also, according to David Wright’s altitude chart, Unha-2 was over 300 km altitude when it passed over Japan, easily in space. Not the impression given by many of the reports at the time, which seemed a bit over alarmist.

  13. 3.1415 (History)

    The three generations of Kims have been playing US, USSR/Russia, China, Japan and S. Korea for over 60 years, during which countless rulers of the five parties have been repeatedly failed to force the DPRK to do almost anything. That is a remarkable achievement to any Martian observer. Assuming that the “successful” formular of the Kim’s will work for two more generations, which we have no reason to believe otherwise, the DPRK will make an ICBM with capability like DF-5 eventually. As long as the five parties keep their status quo, the Kim’s have lots of time to hone the art of rocket science. They have read Chairman Mao’s work 愚公移山.

  14. Just Man (History)


    Thanks for your good analysis!

    But I am not sure which side will come out
    out of this apparent debacle of the deal as a

    If US can convince SC to impose further
    sanctions on NK, after the satellite launch,
    it may hurt NK, depending on the magnitude of
    the sanctions.

    Perhaps, the best outcome would be a win-win
    situation where NK is allowed to launch the satellite
    and US get the rest of the moratorium implemented.

    After all, Uncle Sam pledged in the 2/29 announcement
    that it has no “hostile intent” against NK.
    So, it should welcome NK’s entry into space age
    if they are successful.

  15. Hans-Joachim Schmidt (History)

    I fully agree with the author, the question is, what does it mean for the management of the conflict.

  16. Andrew (History)


    “U.S. Calls Off Food Assistance to North Korea Ahead of Rocket Launch”

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Not exactly intrigue; that was the most likely (and clearly telegraphed) response from the US’ position when the story broke. I think they waited long enough to see if the NKs were willing to talk about it, and when the answer turned out to be no did what they said they were going to.