Three bits of news and some quick, initial thoughts:
1. 2nd Secret Trip to Pyongyang…?
The plot thickens. White House officials reportedly made another top secret trip to Pyongyang on August 17th aboard a U.S. military aircraft from Guam, according to Korea’s Donga Ilbo newspaper (Korean language link) citing diplomatic sources. If true, it would be the second such trip this year since the April day-trip that came one week before Pyongyang launched its long-range rocket, but this time for a four-day visit. Donga Ilbo reports the aircraft took the same route as the one in April but this time notified Chinese officials beforehand.
News broke mid-afternoon yesterday (Nov. 28th U.S. time), and so began the Sherlock Holmes investigation. Cryptic diplomatic responses – NCND (neither confirm nor deny) – by senior officials from several capitols both reported and not reported in the news and point to clearer signs that there actually might have been another top secret trip. As Donga Ilbo reported, the August trip (if true) may have been for risk management ahead of the U.S. presidential elections. Perhaps it was follow-up of April’s meeting, and perhaps there was some mentioning of what steps a second Obama administration might be willing to take. At the same time, the trip was an extremely politically risky 007 action taken because it was so close to the elections with no clear indication who would sit in the oval office.
2. North Korean Missile Launch…?
It’s been widely reported that Pyongyang appears to be gearing up for another missile launch with the possible aim of influencing South Korea’s December 19th presidential elections. We just don’t know for sure with North Korea, but there’s another scenario that seems to have been missed in the broader public discourse. The “target” of North Korean missiles is the U.S., not South Korea, so it can be assessed that missile prep and/or launches are a message to the U.S. Assuming the August 17th top secret trip to Pyongyang is true, and assuming some “deal” was struck (however big or small), then the latest missile preparation movements could be a message reminding the Obama administration to keep its word in the next term. While maintaining technical readiness, Pyongyang may not have made a political decision to launch a missile yet – it may wait until the Obama administration completes its transition, watch Washington’s next steps, and then decide to launch if it is unhappy. The current weather may not be attractive for a missile launch, and they usually struggle with the weather even during clearer seasons like the spring and summer. That’s one scenario, but of course, when it comes to North Korea, no one really knows with any certainty — they may very well launch in December. Multiple launches would help help perfect the North’s missile technology, but we should also remember that Pyongyang’s provocations are also contingent upon timing and circumstance whether it’s for domestic or international motivations.
3. Progress at New Nuclear Reactor?
The Chicago Tribune quotes International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chief Yukiya Amano that North Korea “has continued construction of the light water reactor and largely completed work on the exterior of the main buildings” but the IAEA “remains unable to determine the reactor’s design features or the likely date for its commissioning.”
Amano said: “While the agency continues to monitor the reported uranium enrichment facility, using satellite imagery, its configuration and operational status cannot be established.”
Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and IAEA monitors have been denied on-site access.
In a nutshell: More movements resonating from North Korea in the months to come can be expected. It is critical that all members of the Six Party Talks coordinate stances early and are in sync if and when Pyongyang unleashes another provocation amid political transitions in key countries next year.