US to North Korea: Launch that missile, and you lose the food aid

The US will not supply food aid to a hunger-stricken North Korea if Pyongyang persists in its plan to launch a long-range missile next month, the State Department warned late Friday. 

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile (r.) and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, March 16. North Korea said on Friday it will launch a 'working' satellite to mark the centenary of deceased 'Great Leader' Kim Il-sung’s birth next month.

This story was updated at 4:25 p.m. EDT.

 The United States would call off a deal to send tons of food aid to hunger-stricken North Korea if the government in Pyongyang persists in a surprise plan to launch a long-range rocket next month, the State Department said Friday afternoon.

Responding to North Korea’s announcement that it intends to launch a satellite on the back of a long-range missile sometime in mid-April, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters late Friday that the US has informed the North that proceeding with the launch would void an agreement reached just two weeks ago to send 240,000 tons of food aid to the impoverished country.

“We did warn them that we considered that a satellite launch of this kind would be an abrogation of that agreement,” Ms. Nuland said.

Earlier Friday the US had issued a statement criticizing the North’s plans, though without any mention of the food-aid agreement. The US is hoping Pyongyang can be persuaded to reverse its “highly provocative” plans so that a deal – under which the US will deliver the food aid as the North stops uranium enrichment and opens nuclear facilities to inspection – can proceed. 

The US has called on its partners in the region and Pyongyang’s allies, like China, to pressure the North Korean government.

“We all need to encourage them to change course,” Nuland said.   

North Korea’s missile-launch plan, which it says is intended to mark the centenary of deceased “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung’s birth, not only puts into question the food aid deal. It also dashes hopes that the North’s new young leader, Kim Jung-un, might usher in a new era in which an isolated Pyongyang could be persuaded to negotiate away its nuclear program and reduce tensions on the volatile Korean Peninsula.

In its announcement, the North said it would launch sometime between April 12-16 a satellite “for space development and peaceful use” – a claim it has made in the past when it conducted long-range missile tests. New this time, however, was a pledge to proceed with “maximum transparency” and to direct the launch so it “would not have any impact on neighboring countries.”

That new wording within a provocative statement has analysts guessing at just what Pyongyang has up its sleeve.

“The announcement … is as confusing as it is disturbing,” says George Lopez, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and a former UN expert on North Korea. The confusion arises from the announcement’s goal and motivation, on which he says he and others who study North Korea can only speculate.

Does it mean that the North is continuing its pattern of offering concessions with one hand and violating those same concessions with the other? Professor Lopez wonders. Or does this indicate deep divisions among the North’s elite over just what constraints, if any, the new leader should accept on its nuclear and military programs?

“My sense is that this whole thing has led to a lot of head-scratching in Washington,” Lopez says.

Others say the untested Kim Jung-un may be trying to have his cake and eat it, too, in a sense: He no doubt intends to use the announced satellite launch to make good on a promise to mark his grandfather’s centennial celebration with a show of technological prowess, but the emphasis on a satellite launch and promises of transparency may suggest an equal desire not to alienate the United States.

Some South Korean and Japanese experts say the North’s intended launch makes the recent food-aid deal dead in the water. But others point to Washington's careful omission of any reference to the deal as a hint that the US wants to probe Pyongyang’s intentions and see what some diplomatic feelers might yield before it pulls the plug on hard-won progress with the North.

“This could lead to a decision [in Washington] that this puts us back to square one,” Lopez says. “But I think at least initially there will be an effort to hold off and see if it’s possible to avoid that.” 

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