The United States has halted plans to provide food aid to North Korea after North Korea promised to launch a missile into outer space next month, although the Obama administration maintains there is no "linkage" between the two issues.
Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee that after North Korea announced it would use a long-range missile to launch a satellite into space, violating the missile moratorium it agreed to last Leap Day, the United States decided not to send the 240,000 tons of food there it had promised in that very deal. But the Obama administration is not using food as leverage, Lavoy insisted. The administration simply can't trust the North Koreans to honor their commitments now, even when it comes to ensuring that the food is delivered to its intended recipients.
"The North Koreans have announced that they will launch a missile. We are working very closely with allies and other partners in the region to try to discourage North Korea from launching this missile as they've intended. But we believe that this reflects their lack of desire to follow through on their international commitments," Lavoy testified. "And so we have been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance to North Korea largely because we have now no confidence that the monitoring mechanisms that ensure that the food assistance goes to the starving people and not the regime elite, that these monitoring mechanisms we have no confidence that they would actually abide by the understandings."
Some lawmakers were skeptical that the administration was not punishing the North Koreans for their upcoming missile launch by withholding the food aid, but Lavoy insisted the two issues were not linked, even though they were announced in the same Feb. 29 statement and negotiated at the same time with the same officials.
"We don't believe that nutritional assistance should be a lever to achieve a political outcome. It is a humanitarian effort that we have intended. And again, it's regrettable that this has stopped," Lavoy said. "So the reason, again, why we're not providing that food assistance at this point is because our confidence in their ability to meet their agreements has been diminished. We do not use it as a lever to change their policies."
State Department Spokeswomand Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday that the issues aren't linked, but she implied that the food aid could be restored if the missile launch is scuttled.
"We don't have confidence in their good faith. If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite," she said. "They are separate issues, but they come together at the point of whether the government's acting in good faith."
During the talks that led up the Feb. 29 statement, the U.S. side made clear to the North Koreans that any missile launch, even a satellite launch, would be a deal breaker, Lavoy said.
Lavoy also warned that the North Korean leadership might do something else provocative on or around the April 15 celebration on the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, perhaps as a way for new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to establish his power and legitimacy.
"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16th that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12th and 16th," Lavoy said.
Lavoy also said that the North Koreans intend to launch the missile in a southward direction, although nobody knows where the missile or its debris might land.
"A number of countries are potentially affected. The debris on fall on their countries. It could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan, and the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia," he said.
HASC Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) said the upcoming missile launch was further evidence that the North Koreans never had any intention in engaging in real denuclearization talks and that the regime's stance has not changed since the death of Kim Jong Il.
"This is typical behavior shown by the regime, a cycle of provocations and reconciliations designed to get what they want without giving up their nuclear weapons program," McKeon said. "It's becoming clear that the same aggressive, reckless cycle will continue under the new North Korean dictator. Although the Chinese and Russian governments publicly expressed concern about the planned missile launch, they have been unable or unwilling to bring their North Korea ally back to the negotiation table."
Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-OH) pressed Lavoy on President Barack Obama's hot mic comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvdev in Seoul, in which Obama asked Medvdev to ask Vladimir Putin to give him "space" on the missile defense issue until after the November election.
"Are you aware of the deal the president has with Medvedev and with Russia that would be revealed to us after the election that perhaps isn't secret to you that would limit our missile-defense capability, either in deployment use or scope, that, of course, is a serious -- you know, a serious concern to this committee as we look to the rise of North Korea?" Turner asked. "Are you aware of the subject matter of the president's missile-defense deal, secret or not, with the Russians? And if you're not, why are you not?
"No, sir, I am not," Lavoy responded. "And I can assure you that we do believe that missile defense and our phased-adaptive approach to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region is very much alive. It's very much part of our comprehensive approach to deal with the threat posed by the North Koreans. And it's something we're committed to."
"OK. I would greatly appreciate it if you would ask the president what are the details of his deal with the Russians concerning missile defense that cannot be disclosed until after the election," Turner replied.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.