NEW YORK--Pyongyang has been insisting since summer 2011 that it has the right to launch a satellite and has miscalculated the U.S. stance on the issue, a former U.S. diplomat with extensive ties to North Korea said.
Evans Revere, the former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has had informal contact with high-ranking North Korean Foreign Ministry officials during international conferences, even after he left the State Department.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Revere said that in a meeting with North Korean officials last July, one official said, "We have the sovereign right to launch a satellite and we will never give up that right no matter what."
Revere added that a North Korean official said in December that Pyongyang had decided to go ahead with the launch.
North Korea said it will launch the satellite between April 12 and 16. Experts, however, believe the launch is Pyongyang’s attempt to test ballistic missile technology.
North Korea reached an agreement with the United States in February to suspend the launching of long-range ballistic missiles as part of a deal for food assistance.
Revere indicated there was a strong possibility the February agreement was reached despite a major difference of opinion by the two sides on the launches.
He said: "North Korea repeated that they have a sovereign right for peaceful use of space. The U.S. view was that a satellite launch was just as much a violation as a missile launch. North Korea understood that position and accepted the U.S. understanding."
Revere added, "North Korea miscalculated. (They felt) the United States will accept a peaceful satellite launch, or even if they react, two to three months later (the United States) will be back at the negotiation table."
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Q: At the meeting with North Korean Foreign Ministry officials in Germany, did you talk about their announcement of the "satellite" launch?
A: Once again, North Korea has shown that agreement basically has no meaning. I said to my North Korean counterpart, "You just concluded an agreement with the United States and now you are doing this, a clear violation. Who will be left to stand up in the United States and say we should give the North Koreans something? No one." I said that the universe of people who support this is getting smaller and smaller.
Q: And what was the reaction?
Most of the conversation in Germany was the usual conversation. But at the very end of the second day of discussions, what I think the major message North Korea communicated to us is the following: "We have the sovereign right to launch a satellite and we will never give up that right no matter what. If others--and here I assume the United Nations, the United States or some group of people--take any measures that infringe on our sovereignty, we will take measures in response." There was one more message: We are not in a position now to tell what those measures are.
Both of us have been looking at this for a long time. We know what that means. What have they done in the past in response? They have escalated their rhetoric. They have conducted military provocations, they have fired short-range missiles, they have launched medium-range missiles and they conducted nuclear tests. That is the range of actions that they are capable of taking. They may take more than that, but that is the basic menu.
Was there a specific statement for specific action? No. But there is a very clear statement that they will respond if the United States or the U.N. does anything. And they are not going to say what their response will be.
If you believe that the purpose of the launch is to test the missile, the logical thing they would want to do next is to test the warhead.
Now, will they do it? I am not predicting they will. But I am suggesting that that is probably on their list of options, and we have to be very careful about this.
Q: Were you told last December that they would launch the satellite?
A: On Dec. 15, I had coffee with an American colleague and a North Korean. I did not raise the missile issues. He did, which was interesting. He raised it in a way in which he made sort of a legal argument for their sovereign right as he called it. And he said that we are determined to exercise our sovereign right. He said these are our rights and we have our international right of treaties and peaceful use of space and no one can tell us what to do, all those arguments.
I said I do not agree with you but I am not going to dispute that. But you will do maybe irreversible damage if you go ahead with this, with the U.N. Security Council and destroying the mood and relationship of the two countries, etc.
The message I took away was that he was sort of hinting. The North Koreans went into this with their eyes wide open. They knew what they were doing.
Q: Why did they announce the satellite launch just two weeks after the agreement?
A: Here is my theory. Take a look at the content of the Feb. 29 agreement. That content was important for North Korea. But, more importantly, the things in the agreement that were benefits for us--freeze plutonium reprocessing, freeze uranium enrichment, allow IAEA to come back to monitor, no nuclear test and no ballistic missile launch. All of these things benefit us, benefit Japan, benefit South Korea, everybody in the region. So here is what I think. The North Koreans were thinking: "Those things are so valuable and important that either the United States will accept a peaceful satellite launch, or they will not react strongly. Or even if they react, in two to three months they will be back at the negotiation table."
Q: Do you think North Korea underestimated the United States?
A: It is my own theory. There are other theories possible. Some people suggested that North Korean Foreign Ministry officials negotiated in good faith and did not know about the launch. They negotiated the agreement and sent it back to Pyongyang. Then so-called hard-liners said, "No, we are going to go ahead doing this." I do not buy that. They knew exactly what they were doing. When Ri Yong Ho came here to New York, he knew.
Q: What exactly happened in the negotiation?
A: I heard the North Korean side and the U.S. side. I understand that concept of agreement. Here is my best assessment of what happened. There was no misunderstanding about the word they used. North Korea repeated that they have a sovereign right for peaceful use of space. They always say that. They said that last year, even 10 years ago.
But North Korea also understands that the launch of any kind of missile for whatever purpose is a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution. They understand that.
The U.S. side beginning in July last year made it very clear at the initial meeting in New York and the follow-up meetings in Geneva and Beijing that the launch of anything, including a satellite, would be a violation of not only the U.N. Security Council resolution, but also this agreement.
The U.S. view was that a satellite launch was just as much a violation as a missile launch. North Korea gave their position about this. But North Korea understood that (U.S.) position and, I am told very authoritatively, accepted it. I did not say agreed, but accepted the U.S. position or assertion that a satellite launch would be a violation of the Feb. 29 agreement.
This is a little delicate here. Did they ever give up the sovereign right? No. But did they say to the United States during the period of this agreement, we will give up our right? No. But, did they understand and accept the U.S. position that this would be a violation and destroy the agreement? Yes. Their calculation was that they could do this and get away with it somehow.
One more thing to understand is the way this agreement was structured. There was no paper. But each side had an identical understanding of what would constitute a violation of the agreement. On that, there was no disagreement.
North Korea miscalculated. The mood in Washington now is angry and frustrated.
Q: So you don't buy the argument that there is internal conflict (in North Korea)?
A: No. On Dec. 15, I sat across the table from my North Korean counterpart and he gave me all the arguments for launching. And those were the same words that his people were uttering in July of last year, in October in Geneva and in December in Beijing. The line has not changed. They have been moving toward this direction for quite some time.
Q: In the dialogue with North Korea, did they mention anything about Japan?
A: In the New York meeting, they said, “As part of the process for normalization, we can discuss with all parties, including Japan. But Japan is very much fixated with the abduction issue. That is the problem between us."
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