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
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
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
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."