At Nuclear Summit, Obama Faces Prospect of a North Korean Deal Gone Bad

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Jung Yeon-Je / AFP / Getty Images

South Korean conservative activists hang an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un next to a mock North Korean missile during a rally denouncing the North's announcement of a planned satellite launch, in Seoul on March 20, 2012.

Last month, North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un showed he has his father’s ability to cut a deal. Does he also have Kim Jong Il’s habit of breaking them? That is one of the many questions President Obama will face as he visits Seoul starting Sunday for a nuclear security summit. The meeting follows a 2010 conclave in Washington the White House organized to push for greater controls on nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists. North Korea isn’t one of more than 50 nations expected to send leaders to the Seoul meeting, nor is its nuclear program on the official agenda. But it will be on the minds of the participants. Obama intends to visit the highly fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the North and South before the summit starts, a move officially intended to recognize the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, but one that will also symbolize the ongoing risk of conflict. As a further reminder, Monday will mark the second anniversary of North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors. 

The nuclear summit will also be held against the backdrop of the potential collapse of last month’s “Leap Day deal,” in which North Korea agreed to halt long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and other nuclear activities and allow the return of inspectors in exchange for U.S. food aid. At issue is Pyongyang’s plan, announced last Friday, to launch a satellite as part of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. The U.S. has warned that such a launch would violate the Feb. 29 agreement. “In the context of working on the Leap Day agreement, we made clear unequivocally that we considered that any satellite launch would be a deal-breaker,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said. The U.S. has denied that the offer of 20,000 metric tons of food aid per month is linked to the nuclear freeze agreement, but the steps were announced simultaneously, and North Korea’s satellite launch plans may scuttle the U.S. aid. “Were we to have a launch, it would create, obviously, tensions,” Nuland said. “And that would make the implementation of any kind of a nutritional agreement quite difficult. It would very much imperil the environment.”

(MORE: North Korea Nuclear Suspension: Diplomatic Coup for Obama but No Rapid Change Expected)

For its part, North Korea says that any statement from the security summit on its nuclear program would amount to a declaration of war. “The South Korean puppet authorities are getting ever more undisguised in their moves to turn ‘the nuclear security summit’ to be held in Seoul into a confab on a nuclear racket,” the Korean Central News Agency, the North’s official news service, said Wednesday. “Any provocation will amount to a declaration of a war,” it added. The statement is typical of North Korean rhetoric, notes Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “It’s something you hear from Pyongyang four or five times a year,” he says. “It’s their diplomatic language.” But North Korea’s tone shows how easily antagonism on the Korean peninsula, which seemed to have been eased slightly following the Leap Day deal announcement, can be revived.

North Korea argues that a satellite launch is not the same as a missile. At a basic level, that’s true. A ballistic missile must reach a high altitude and then descend to its target, a satellite launch is designed to put an object into orbit. But the technologies involved in both endeavors are the same, and expertise in one can easily be transferred to the other. North Korea has previously attempted satellite launches in 1998 and 2009. A month after the 2009 launch, the regime conducted its second nuclear test. The U.N. Security Council condemned the 2009 launch and nuclear test, and its subsequent resolution demanded that the regime “not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology.”

(PHOTOS: Food Crisis in North Korea)

Japan, for its part, has threatened to shoot down the North Korean missile if it enters Japanese airspace on its planned southerly course. China, North Korea’s only significant ally, expressed displeasure at Pyongyang’s plans, and Luo Zhaohui, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s department of Asian Affairs, urged all sides to “keep calm and restrained.” But it is unlikely that China, which above all prizes stability in Pyongyang, will put any significant pressure on the regime.

Some fallout from the discord between the U.S. and North Korea has already been seen. The U.S. military says it is suspending plans to renew the search for remains of some 5,300 U.S. soldiers who went missing in North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. A decision on the food aid may not be announced until it is seen whether North Korea conducts its launch, which is scheduled for April 12-16. Lankov says that given the amount of effort North Korea has invested on internal propaganda surrounding the satellite launch, it is almost certain the regime will go ahead.

If that happens, he estimates an 80 to 90% likelihood the U.S. will kill the food offer. And at that point, the glimmer of optimism surrounding the Leap Day deal will have vanished, too. Obama is facing pressure from Republicans to do more to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Israel has warned that it could launch a military strike if it feels Iran has come to close to developing a nuclear weapon. With Obama facing re-election in November, and South Korea voting for a new president in December, there will be little political will to renew serious negotiations over North Korea this year, Lankov says. “We will be back to square one and and likely remain there,” he says. “I wouldn’t expect any serious change until after the presidential elections in both the U.S. and South Korea.”

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