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DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit
The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit
Commentary / Asia

DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK

On 8 November 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller into the custody of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), for a return flight to the United States. Bae had been detained for two years after being convicted by a DPRK court for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Bae, a Christian missionary, was suspected of having proselytised against the regime, calling for a “religious coup d’état”. Miller was arrested in April 2014 and convicted in September 2014, also for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Miller reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and asked for political asylum.

Some people expressed surprise at the sudden release of Bae and Miller. But Jeffrey Fowle, another detained American citizen, was released in late October. Fowle had been arrested for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at the Ch’ŏngjin Seamen’s Club, a restaurant and bar for foreign sailors (and North Koreans with cash). Clearly, the detention of the Americans no longer served the purposes of the regime, but Pyongyang apparently requested a visit by a high-level U.S. government official before agreeing to their release. The Obama administration would have been sensitive about sending a high-level official because of possible criticism at home and because Pyongyang could manipulate the visit for propaganda purposes. The administration pointed out that DNI James Clapper was selected for the mission to emphasise that the visit was not to include broader diplomatic discussions.

Some analysts have speculated that Pyongyang decided to release the Americans because the regime is worried about international criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record. The UN General Assembly is preparing to vote on a draft resolution that could include a recommendation for the referral of senior DPRK officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The DPRK’s economic dependence on China could also help explain Pyongyang’s recent international outreach and so-called “charm offensive”.

While the DPRK certainly is motivated to deflect international criticism of its sorry human rights record and to diversify its international partners, the impact of Clapper’s visit on the DPRK’s internal affairs should also not be overlooked. The Obama administration was very careful to consider the impact of a high-level visit on perceptions and audience costs within the Washington Beltway. But was the administration as prudent regarding the way Clapper’s visit would be portrayed in Pyongyang?

Washington is right to be concerned about the manipulation of visits by high-level officials. The Korean Workers Party and state media are very adept at stage-managing visits and controlling media reports to ensure that visitors are perceived to be “paying their respects to the peerlessly great men of the Kim ruling family”. In addition, high-level visits can be portrayed as Washington’s recognition of the DPRK as a “nuclear state”, which is a regime priority. To counter this, the Obama administration has been clear it will not engage diplomatically with the DPRK until it is confident that Pyongyang will return to the Six-Party Talks and bargain in good faith to fulfill its previous denuclearisation commitments.

Many analysts have pointed out that the DPRK leadership is hyper-rational and only acts out of self-interest. The Obama administration has said there is no quid pro quo, and that Obama’s personal letter delivered by Clapper to Kim Jong-un “did not contain an apology in any way, shape or form”. But what was the price for sending Clapper? Certainly Pyongyang must have believed it got something out of the deal.

If past behaviour is a guide, the DPRK sought a written apology or admission of wrongdoing. (The most famous case is the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Negotiations dragged on for almost a year before the crew was released.) The contents of Obama’s letter are unknown; however, even if the president did not “admit, assure, and apologise” for the crimes of Bae and Miller, the regime can cite Clapper’s visit as an admission that Bae and Miller were spies.

That the DPRK has been reaching out to the international community does not mean it is becoming more liberal. The benefits of economic opening, trade, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers should be obvious even to the most conservative hardliners in Pyongyang. However, the Kim family regime has been nervous about subversive ideas entering North Korea from abroad. So the DPRK leadership faces a dilemma. Opening up is necessary for economic prosperity and successful implementation of the pyŏngjin line—the DPRK’s strategy to develop the economy and nuclear technologies simultaneously. However, opening up also raises the risk of social and political instability.

Since Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his power, the regime has increased internal security in the form of increased surveillance against threats from “enemies who wish to topple the DPRK”. Under these conditions, internal security institutions have a strong incentive to provide “more security”, which can be quantified by the number of people arrested, imprisoned, and executed.

We may never know how the DPRK government will depict Clapper’s visit in its internal communications, but if the regime is consistent with past practice, it will describe Clapper as having gone to Pyongyang to “admit, assure, and apologise” for the “crimes against the DPRK”. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Clapper’s mission “proves that Bae and Miller are guilty as charged” and the DNI went to pick up agents who were conducting espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Obama administration claims it selected Clapper for the mission, but could Pyongyang have insisted on Clapper? If the DPRK insisted on the DNI and no one else, then sending Clapper to release the Americans probably is worth the cost of Pyongyang’s internal propaganda victory. However, considering the potentially increased risk that future American tourists could be charged with espionage, sending someone outside of the U.S. intelligence community might have been more appropriate assuming Pyongyang did not make Clapper’s presence a condition of the release of the two Americans.

A TV screen on a street in Tokyo broadcasts news of North Korea's ballistic missile launch in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on 29 August 2017. AFP/Kota Kawasaki
Commentary / Asia

The Strategic Thinking behind North Korea’s Missile Gambit

North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan was irresponsible – yet it was more of a carefully calculated risk than a reckless gamble. Pyongyang’s goal is not a shooting war but to build up military and nuclear capabilities that serve strategic aims of survival and force protection.

North Korea’s launch of a missile over Japan early on Monday morning was certainly irresponsible. But for Pyongyang, it was more of a carefully calculated risk than a reckless gamble. It is the latest step in a strategy aimed not to get into a shooting war but designed to build up the nuclear and missile capabilities that the regime firmly believes it needs.

A potential nuclear power firing missiles is of course enough to put the world on edge – and possibly provoke retaliation. Even mainstream U.S. commentators such as Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass are now suggesting that Pyongyang’s apparent irresponsibility is so great that it undermines faith in deterrence as a strategy and turns “a preventive strike [into] a serious option, notwithstanding its high risks and potential costs”.

Indeed, things could have gone very wrong if the missile had failed over Japan – even if it had failed over North Korea itself. The rocket was fired from the vicinity of Sunan International Airport, a mere 24km from Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, so had to travel across much of North Korean territory en route to the East Sea/Sea of Japan. That it appears to have been fired over the Tsugaru Strait that divides the northern island of Hokkaido from the main island of Honshu somewhat reduced risk of casualties, but that is of little comfort. In the end, while the gambit paid off, it once again reminded the world of the North Korean government’s indifference to the value of civilian lives – both Japanese and that of its own people – even if that has not been in doubt for decades.

The reaction from the Japanese government reflected that sense of alarm. It hosted a press conference to convey the message of a crisis under firm control even as the country’s largest broadcaster, NHK, cancelled all programming and talked non-stop about missiles for more than three hours. Had the missile fallen on Japanese territory, no matter how sparsely populated, Tokyo would have had to respond. The ensuing escalatory dynamic might well have led to a wider – if unintended – conflagration involving the U.S. and South Korea at a minimum.

The rocket launch was almost certainly part of a coldly thought-out strategy, carefully calibrated to spur anger and gain attention but – as long as it worked as intended – avoid incurring a military response.

It is however important to remember the context surrounding North Korea’s missile ploy. Its heedless nature aside, the rocket launch was almost certainly part of a coldly thought-out strategy, carefully calibrated to spur anger and gain attention but – as long as it worked as intended – avoid incurring a military response. While it had earlier threatened to fire a cluster of missiles into the waters off Guam, that was always more of a theoretical threat, never terribly likely to happen. By aiming its fire in a less provocative direction, Pyongyang believed it was sending a message of comparable range and execution without crossing an irreparable line. Given what was said about Guam, the regime could ill-afford to do nothing, particularly in light of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that, as Crisis Group anticipated, routinely prompt a North Korean response; instead, Pyongyang demonstrated its willingness to take risks as a way to keep pushing its demands forcefully onto the global agenda.

In this context, crossing Japanese airspace at this particular time served North Korea’s purposes. It raised the international visibility of this act of defiance, bringing to mind North Korea’s first major missile launch on 1 September 1998, which also crossed Japan on its way into the Pacific. Now, as then, Pyongyang has offered no reasonable explanation for the chosen path of the launch, claiming it was a reminder of the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, which came into force on 29 August 1910. At the same time, by doing so amid the South Korean-U.S. military exercises that finish on Thursday, Pyongyang was giving China and Russia ready-made arguments for why any resulting UN Security Council statement should strike some balance – unanimously condemning the missile launch as "outrageous" while also urging a “peaceful, diplomatic and political” solution rather than a military one.

Heightened tensions, as often is the case, are helpful for the North Korean regime.

Heightened tensions, as often is the case, are helpful for the North Korean regime. In this sense, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent praise for its “restraint” hardly was welcome to Pyongyang’s ears. For this threatened to ease the focus on Korean Peninsula events well before North Korea was ready to walk back from the precipice.

The most important question now is how international actors should react. The strong response from the Security Council was a step in making clear to Pyongyang that it cannot intimidate the rest of the world.  But it also is important to understand that North Korea felt the need to undertake this test not merely for political reasons, but because its list of strategic goals includes deployment of credible, tested missile delivery systems at some point in the future. Given the apparent inability of outsiders to divert it from this course, at least at an acceptable price, the best immediate approach would be to ensure that any such eventual deployment does not significantly alter the strategic calculus in North East Asia in a way that weakens the U.S.-South Korean alliance or strengthens North Korea’s belief that it can plausibly hope for reunification of the peninsula on its own terms. It certainly would not be to rule out talking to Pyongyang, as President Trump carelessly tweeted. There is space to both contain and negotiate with a nuclear and missile-armed North Korea, odious as that sounds, and much of our collective energy must now be directed toward that end.