2003 May 11 Sunday
On Bush Administration Policy Debates About North Korea

The New York Times has an article on the Bush Administation debate about North Korea policy and the thinking in the Japanese and South Korean governments about North Korea. While North Korea has tried to drive a wedge between the United States and Japan with missile testing the Japanese are reacting by taking a harder line toward North Korea.

But rather than dividing Japan from the United States, the missiles appear to have had the reverse effect. The combination of the missile threat and North Korea's admission that it kidnapped Japanese citizens for intelligence training has opened a discussion in Japan about whether to join any American effort to strangle North Korea economically, and even to deploy its own version of an American-designed missile defense.

The Japanese reaction to North Korea's missile development efforts is driving it closer to the US position on North Korea. The US does not have a clear fixed position but it seems clear that appeasement is not part of the US strategy and the Bush Administration is not inclined to find a way to live with a growing threat from North Korea. The Japanese share that general view. What is being debated within the US and Japanese governments is more something along the line of how best to prevent the North Korean threat from growing and even to roll back the extent of North Korea's current ability to threaten Japan and other countries.

The Bush Administration may seem divided over whether to pursue diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions, or military action against North Korea. But my guess is that the US government will pursue another round of negotiations as part of a larger sequence. The US will attempt to let the North Korean behavior in the negotiating sessions demonstrate to the Chinese and other governments that North Korea's leaders can not be bargained with. The US goal will be to get support for economic sanctions. The real debate in the Bush Administration is going to be over how best to create support for sanctions. If support for sanctions can be achieved then the debate in the Bush Administration will move on to whether, when, and how to move beyond sanctions to military action.

In parallel with the diplomatic activity the US government is going to look for ways to reduce the North Korean regime's revenues in advance of the enactment of formal sanctions by going after illegal North Korean income sources such as illicit drug sales. The US, Japan and other allied governments will put a lot of conventional criminal investigators on the job of trying to reduce North Korean illicit drug trafficking. As an indication of how informal sanctions will be implemented see how the Japanese government is working on a number of ways to reduce North Korean revenue sources.

The North Korean regime regularly threatens to treat sanctions as an act of war. But there are ways that the US can orchestrate a reduction of North Korean revenues without the enactment of formal sanctions. How will the North Korean regime respond if only China is shipping it supplies and trading with it in spite of the absence of formal sanctions? Will the North Koreans launch limited military strikes or does Kim Jong-il realize that if he strikes the first military blow then he just gives the US the justification to hit back much harder?

The Bush Administration game may well find ways to put so much economic pressure on North Korea that the regime in Pyongyang miscalculates and does something despicable (e.g. shelling of a South Korean residential neighborhood) that shifts opinion in many East Asian countries in the direction of supporting a US-led attack. However, South Korea may continue to trade with the North and provide it with aid. But the big wild card in this game continues to be China. Will China increase aid to North Korea enough to compensate for the loss of other revenue sources that the US and allies manage to cut off? Or will China join in to enforce sanctions?

The Bush Administration needs to be able to put enough economic pressure on North Korea so that the regime in Pyongyang either collapses or launches a military strike that justifies a huge US counterattack to bring it down. Japan stands a good chance of supporting economic sanctions. But China, which has a UN Security Council seat and long border with North Korea, still seems unlikely to join the US in supporting sanctions. Also, South Korea seems unlikely to do as well. If the US can not line up enough support for sanctions then the only US option left at that point may well be a large scale military strike designed to bring down the regime.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 11 01:23 AM  Politics Grand Strategy


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