The Diplomatic Breakdown Behind North Korea's Missile Test

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The new crisis dampens early hopes that Kim Jong Un would have a warmer relationship with the West.

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An official with Japan Airlines points at a map of Korean Peninsula showing a no-fly zone that would avoid an accident with North Korea's planned long-range rocket launch. Reuters

The roots of the growing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's controversial missile launch Thursday trace back to a set of closed-door talks in February--and the sharply differing conclusions each side drew from the negotiations.

The talks in Beijing were led by a pair of experienced negotiators, American Glyn Davies and North Korean Kim Kye Gwan, and the deal announced on Feb. 29 was initially hailed as a breakthrough in the years-long standoff over the future of North Korea's nuclear program. 

Under the terms of the agreement, Pyongyang agreed to a moratorium on its missile testing, a halt to uranium enrichment, and a resumption of the international monitoring of its nuclear sites. In response, Washington said it would provide 240,000 tons of food aid to the impoverished country.

Less than two months later, that deal lies in shambles. North Korea ignored the Obama administration's promises to cancel the food aid and press for harsh new sanctions if it went ahead with the launch. It has instead signaled plans for a nuclear weapons test, which would be a far more provocative move. Either way, the odds of new U.S.-North Korean talks seems to hover right around zero.

Experts on North Korea, including several with close ties to the U.S. and North Korean governments, say the deal may have been doomed the instant the two sides returned to their respective capitals.

Members of the American team told their North Korean counterparts that a satellite launch would violate the Feb. 29 agreement, according to Evans Revere, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the George W. Bush administration and regularly communicates with U.S. negotiators.

The North Koreans reiterated their nation's long-held position that they had the right to launch a satellite and that such a launch shouldn't be treated the same as a missile test, according to Revere and L. Gordon Flake, another North Korea expert with ties to the U.S. negotiators. 

The U.S. team had heard those arguments before and rejected them out of hand, as they had done publicly and privately before. To make sure there was no doubt about Washington's position, the American diplomats had the North Korean team verbally repeat back that they understood a missile launch would serve as a deal-breaker, Revere and Flake said.

"The Americans made it unambiguously clear that they saw no difference between a satellite launch and a missile launch," said Flake, the executive director of the Mansfield Foundation. "Kim Kye Gwan read the language back to them."

What happened next lies at the heart of the crisis sparked by North Korea's ultimate decision to go through with the satellite launch. 

Flake said he believes North Korea's government--thrown into disarray by the recent death of its paramount leader, Kim Jong Il--suffered a major communications breakdown, with the Beijing team's agreement to forgo a satellite launch not adequately conveyed to the political and military leadership back in Pyongyang.

"There was a screw-up within the North Korean government," Flake said. "It seems likely that the information didn't flow back correctly."

Revere, by contrast, believes that North Korea's top leadership in Pyongyang accurately understood what the two teams had discussed in Beijing but were all the while preparing to ignore the ban on satellite launches. Revere, now a senior director of the Albright Stonebridge Group, believes the North Koreans seriously misjudged the U.S. response.

"The calculation they made was that the other elements of the agreement--like the freeze on uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons testing--would cause the U.S. to moderate its reaction or eventually come back to the table," he said. "They convinced themselves that those elements were so valuable that the U.S. couldn't just walk away from the agreement."

That, of course, is exactly what the U.S. has done. The Obama administration harshly criticized North Korea as soon as word surfaced of its planned launch, announced that it would suspend all food aid, and is huddling with South Korea, Japan, and other allies to consider further retaliation. Russia and China backed a previous United Nations Security Council statement condemning a North Korean satellite launch in 2009, so U.S. diplomats hope Moscow and Beijing will back a hardline position here as well. 

Either way, the new crisis dampens early hopes that Kim Jong Un--the 29-year-old who took control of the country when his father died in December--would have a warmer relationship with the West, or at least a more rational and consistent one.

Some U.S. officials question whether Kim Jong Un has the same degree of control as his father enjoyed and argue that North Korea's military leadership may be emerging as an alternate power center with different, and more hawkish, policy objectives. In a country as isolated as North Korea, the answer won't be clear for some time.   

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Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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