The Obama administration's Asia team was caught so off guard by North Korea's Dec. 11 rocket launch, several of them actually had to put down their drinks and suddenly leave a holiday party being held in honor of the Japanese emperor's birthday.
Several top U.S. officials dealing with Asia and North Korea from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council were relaxing Tuesday night at the Japanese ambassador's Nebraska Avenue residence in Washington when the news came over their blackberries that North Korea had launched another Unha-3 rocket with a "satellite" attached, this time with much more success than a previous attempt in April.
Just minutes before the launch news became known, several officials were overheard remarking how nice it was that North Korea was apparently delaying the launch, giving U.S. North Korea watchers hope that their holiday festivities would not be interrupted.
"Nobody in the U.S. government thought this would happen when it did," said one top Asia expert who attended the party. "A lot of the guys who do the Korea stuff both on the policy and intelligence side were at this thing. They were saying ‘We bought ourselves some time.' People were hoping it didn't happen before Christmas because they wanted to take time off."
Among the Obama Asia officials at the party when the rocket launched were Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Affairs Jim Zumwalt, National Security Council Director for East Asia Syd Seiler, Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy Northeast Asia Director Chris Johnstone, OSD Senior Advisor for Asia Amy Searight, and others. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy was at the Pakistani ambassador's Christmas Party, as was your humble Cable guy.
Seiler is the former CIA official who several sources close to the administration say traveled to Pyongyang in March with former intelligence official Joe DeTrani to urge North Korea to cancel its previous missile launch, which happened in April.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland rejected the idea that the administration was caught off guard by the launch this time.
"For weeks and weeks and weeks we have been warning against this launch and we've been preparing a response if the North Koreans did the wrong thing as they did," she said.
But several attendees at the Japanese emperor's birthday celebration told The Cable that the fact so many Asia officials were not at their desks illustrated how surprised the administration was about the timing of the launch.
"Everybody stood down. Nobody thought they were going to do it this week. It was a real head fake by the North Koreans," another top Asia expert and party attendee said. "DOD, State, and the White House were just stunned by it. They were shocked."
There were varying explanations as to why the Obama administration was caught off guard. North Korea said Dec. 10 said that "technical issues" were forcing it to push back the launch window. Previously, North Korea had said the launch would come by Dec. 22, and the new window was supposed to end Dec. 29. News reports Dec. 9 and 10 also said the missile was being removed from the launch pad. Those reports turned out to be wrong.
A widely read Dec. 10 post on the North Korea watching website 38 North, run by former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit, pointed to commercially available satellite imagery to argue that the launch would not come for at least another 10 days.
"A key question is how long it might take for the North Koreans to repair the rocket, move it back to the pad and conduct the test. That effort could take approximately 9-10 days based on what is known about the first stage rocket technology as well as past North Korean behavior," the post said. "Given that timeline, a launch might take place as early as December 21-22, with added flexibility possible since Pyongyang has extended its launch window until December 29."
In a subsequent post after the launch, the editors of the site said there was simply not enough information to predict that that North Korea could launch the rocket so soon, and that the North Koreans had succeeded in fooling various intelligence agencies and North Korea watchers with the surprise launch. It remains unclear whether the North was waging a disinformation campaign or simply was able to repair the rocket on the launch pad.
"We will, of course, never know what really happened," the post stated. "Either way, the North was able to fire the rocket off quickly, fooling not only us, but evidently also various intelligence agencies with access to reams of secret information."
Some observers have also criticized the administration's slow reaction to the launch -- the White House issued a statement condemning North Korea's actions roughly two and a half hours after the news broke.
That was because the administration was evaluating exactly what happened and trying to get more information, Nuland explained.
As for whether the U.S. government believed reports that the rocket was not ready to launch for at least another week and a half, Nuland said, "I am not going to get into what our intelligence was telling us before, during, or after the launch."
North Korea hands are divided on the way forward. The U.N. Security Council is working on a statement now, but previous statements have not given the North Koreans pause.
Wit, who favors engagement, told The Cable that the North Koreans will continue to test their missile technology and develop their uranium enrichment capabilities and that the Obama administration's hands-off approach isn't working.
"It's been clear for some time that this policy of strategic patience isn't working and this is the most recent and obvious manifestation of that," he said. "We need to do a serious review of our policy."
Former NSC Senior Director for Asia Victor Cha countered that negotiations with North Korea are simply not possible until the North Koreans agree to basic parameters and express the willingness to negotiate in good faith, which hasn't happened. At the same time, the United States has to do something different, he said.
"Strategic patience is not working because our patience is allowing them to advance their long-range missile program and their uranium program. We've got to make a decision," said Cha.
"If we really think this is a threat, we've got to figure out a way to do something that makes it difficult for this regime to continue. If it's not a threat, then we should find a way to get them not to proliferate. That's the problem with strategic patience: It goes in neither of these directions."
Nuland said the administration has only one viable course of action at the moment.
"We have been encouraging this new leader to make a better choice for his people and for regional security. Unfortunately that's not the path that he has chosen," she said. "So we are left with increasing the pressure and that's what we'll do."
UPDATE: Wit writes in to point out that his website 38 North did not actually say that satellite imagery indicated a launch delay. In fact, based on the satellite imagery alone, there was no reason to believe there would be a launch delay, Wit noted. Here's a note he sent to his readers the night of the launch explaining the distinction:
"Press reports that North Korea launched the Unha rocket this evening were confirmed by US, Japanese and South Korean government sources. At this writing, it is unclear whether the launch was successful although unconfirmed reports have indicated that the rocket flew over Okinawa on its way south. Our analysis stated that the full rocket was on the pad as of December 10 and that all other facilities had completed preparations for the test. But we assumed the Unha first stage would be moved to the assembly building for repairs. That clearly didn't happen and why remains unclear."