North Korea rebuffs Obama's warnings at nuclear summit

President Obama's admonition against firing a long-range rocket next month went unheeded by North Korea, which argued it is for economic development. Will China and Russia have any sway?

Susan Walsh/AP
US President Obama listens to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (r.) during opening remarks of the plenary session of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Coex Center in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday. At left is Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

President Obama’s warnings of dire “consequences” if North Korea fires a long-range rocket next month encountered a quick and firm rebuff today from Pyongyang that underscored the North's determination to keep up its nuclear and missile programs in the face of widespread international condemnation.

 As Obama flew home tonight after three days of intense talking about a range of nuclear issues at a conference of leaders of more than 50 countries, the sense among analysts here was that he had made little if any headway in tamping down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a lengthy defense of the North's insistence on going through with the plan to fire the rocket, stressed that the reason is to put a satellite into orbit.

North Korea “will not give up the satellite launch for peaceful purposes,” the spokesman was quoted as saying. The launch was “a legitimate right of a sovereign state” and was “essential for economic development.”

The emphasis on “economic development” appeared as a rebuff not only of President Obama but also of China’s President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Both of them, in talks with Obama on the sidelines of the two-day nuclear security summit, expressed concern about North Korea’s insistence on firing the rocket. They clearly did not have a rocket launch in mind when they urged the North to focus on economic development.

The global leaders agreed, after final sessions of the summit, on a declaration against all forms of nuclear terrorism that said not a word about the issues on the minds of all of them – the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.

“China is certainly talking politely,” says Han Sung-joo, a former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, “but I don’t think China will actually do that” – that is, risk upsetting the North Koreans by withholding some of the fuel and with which it keeps its North Korean protectorate alive.

Instead, Mr. Han predicts, “China will try to persuade South Korea to make it to six-party talks” on North Korea’s nuclear program. The talks, hosted by China, including the United States, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas, were last held in Beijing in December 2008 – and are still regarded as essential in bringing about rapprochement on the Korean peninsula.

Sense that North will get away with launch

The irony is the abiding sense that North Korea can get away with firing the rocket, despite all protests, on the calculated gamble that all rhetoric will fail to gain significant traction in the run-up to the US presidential election in November and South Korea’s election in November.

“North Korea has given a kind of dilemma to both the US and South Korea in that they will go ahead with the rocket launch,” Han surmises.

The problem is how literally to view what people are calling “the leap year agreement” in which US envoy Glyn Davies and North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan, meeting in Beijing, came to three conclusions.

First, according to statements by both their governments, North Korea would observe a moratorium on tests of long-range missiles and nuclear devices. Second, the US would provide 240,000 tons of emergency food aid. Third, North Korea would admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the first time since they were expelled in early 2009, shortly before North Korea last tested a long-range missile and then, in May 2009, conducted its second underground nuclear test.

If the US holds back on food aid, Han explains, that will “reduce the chances” of the North’s inviting IAEA inspectors as promised. “North Korea can then put all the blame on the US,” says Han, “and the US will have to find a way to punish North Korea.”

Nor do analysts see much chance that China and Russia will risk their own relations with North Korea by more than token pleas for the North to give up the missile launch and return to six-party talks on its nuclear program.

“China and Russia will put some modest pressure,” says Paik Han-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank here. “But they will not be taking concrete steps.” They know very well, he says, that “North Korea will go its own way” regardless of what anyone says to the North Koreans.

Despite all the rhetoric, the sense persists that North Korea will return to a talking mode and get the US to make good on the bargain after April 15 celebrations marking the centennial of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the young new leader, Kim Jong-un. North Korea has said it will fire the rocket at around that time.

“North Korea is not interested in what was discussed and achieved here,” says Mr. Paik. “They cannot expect anything good to come out of this summit.”

In fact, the stated purpose of the summit was to come up with ways to combat nuclear terrorism – especially the danger of highly enriched uranium falling into the hands of terrorists. The summit wound up with a communique reaffirming “our shared goals of nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

One example was coordination on policies to reduce the amount of highly enriched uranium used for medical purposes. “We are working very aggressively,” said US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “so terrorists who might have access to this material cannot have access.”

The dilemma posed by North Korea and Iran, however, overshadowed all the deliberations–though the North was not mentioned in the formal sessions.

“Washington needs to manage the situation so they don’t completely destroy formal talks,” says Choi Jin-wook, a senior researcher who specializes on North Korea at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “They will still need to get North Korea involved in that dialogue.”

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