2003 May 20 Tuesday
CFR Report On Foreign Policy Options With North Korea

An indpendent task force of foreign policy notables sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations has released a report entitled Meeting the North Korean Nuclear Challenge (PDF file).

The report makes several proposals for US foreign policy regarding North Korea:

  • Restore greater harmony in U.S.-ROK relations.
  • Enunciating a clear policy and building a strong coalition.
  • Engage in serious, early, and direct negotiations with North Korea.
  • Develop a short-term proposal to test North Korean intentions.
  • Redouble efforts with China to pressure North Korea.

The CFR folks want the United States to pursue greater diplomatic efforts with all parties. The problem with South Korea is that the South Koreans really have different interests. In a war against North Korea they'd suffer the larger number of casualties. Whereas if North Korea sells nukes and those nukes get used by terrorists the United States is likely to suffer the largest number of casualties.

It is not clear how the United States can convince the Beijing regime to pressure the Pyongyang regime. The Beijing regime understands on a gut level that while China's economy may be better managed than North Korea's the United States is a threat to the ideological basis for the Beijing regime while the gang in Pyongyang are not. As the CFR panel acknowledges, the Bush Administration has already made strong appeals to China to act to rein in the Pyongyang regime. The biggest source of leverage that the United States has with China comes from the Chinese belief that the United States may be willing to attack North Korea if other options fail. The best way to convince China to try harder to pressure North Korea would to take actions that strengthen the belief in Beijing that the United States will launch an attack to bring down the Pyongyang regime if other options fail.

Then the CFR panel comes in with an interesting kicker:

  • Contingencies. Should negotiations fail and North Korea reprocess its spent fuel or test a nuclear weapon, the United States should seek to secure more meaningful sanctions and consider imposing a blockade designed to intercept nuclear exports and other illicit or deadly exports. Allied support would be critical.

The problem with this step is that the Beijing regime may turn out to be unwilling to go along with a sanctions regimen and may block an attempt to get UN approval for such a regime. What is surprising is that the CFR panel is willing to support sanctions and even naval blockade if their other proposals fail to turn North Korea away from the development of nuclear weapons. That is a harder line than I'd expect a panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations to adopt.

A naval blockade by itself will probably not bring down the regime as long as China is willing to keep it supplied. Also, a blockade will not prevent the export of nuclear fissile materials.

The report speaks of attempts to carry out economic reform in North Korea:

Its continuing efforts to carry out a modicum of economic reform have suffered serious setbacks. As a result of sustained economic failure, North Korea has turned itself into something of a mafia-ruled state, earning sizeable sums from drugs and counterfeiting.

Efforts to carry out economic reform have suffered serious setbacks? What efforts? What setbacks? The North Korean regime dances around the idea of making reforms but always retreats from making serious large-scale market-oriented reforms because it fears that reducing the amount of control it exercises will lead to a revolution. The report even acknowledges this obvious reason why economic reforms are not happening in North Korea:

But the media’s emphasis on an “imminent” American attack and the buildup of the role of the military may reflect some leadership concern regarding domestic stability. Both Russian and Chinese sources have hinted at growing dissension within the leadership. One thing remains clear: the leadership still believes it cannot open up the country and the economy for fear it will lead to the destruction of the regime.

Consider what this means: the regime's leaders fear economic reform will lead to the overthrow of the regime. But at the same time nothing short of economic reform that allows a larger market economy will improve the lot of the North Korean people. Therefore the lot of the North Korean people will not improve as long as the regime remains in power. Does anyone care about the suffering of the North Korean people? If so, regime overthrow is the best option for ending the deprivation and cruelty that characterize life in North Korea.

Following the Israeli, Pakistani, or Indian models, one would expect that if North Korea had been sprinting towards a full-scale nuclear weapons program, it would have done so as quietly as possible. This was, in fact, how North Korea pursued its HEU program. Yet between last October and this February—and arguably since then—North Korea has openly telegraphed its escalatory moves, including, for example, its moves to eject IAEA inspectors from the country and restart its nuclear facilities. This pattern is consistent with an effort to bring the United States to the bargaining table, though it is not necessarily incompatible with a decision to build nuclear weapons.

North Korea's pursuit of the HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) program began while Clinton was still in office and lots of aid was flowing to North Korean from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The most obvious interpretation of North Korea's move is that, yes, it does want to build nuclear weapons and get the United States to agree not to attack it. Then the next logical step for it once it has nuclear weapons would be to try to wring even larger amounts of aid from the US, Japan, and South Korea.

Look at the world from Kim Jong-il's vantage point: he believes he needs to allow his economy to stay very centrally controlled and very broken. He also knows that the possession of a lot of nuclear weapons would be a great deterrent against attack and great to use to extort larger aid payments that he desperately needs for his decaying economy. From his vantage point he needs more aid and nuclear weapons. Plus, once he has enough nukes for his own purposes he can sell some on the black market. He can always use more cash and so the ability to do that has got to be pretty appealing.

The North Koreans may not be willing to accept a diplomatic solution that includes a sustained and large force of international inspectors granted free rein to look at every corner of the country. Even if the North Koreans were willing to do so the US would be faced with the problem that any system of inspections may not be able to detect continued secret North Korean nuclear weapons development efforts. But it may not be possible to get the North Koreans to submit to an inspections regime as long as China is keeping North Korea supplied.If the United States can not convince the Beijing regime to cut off North Korea then the only option remaining may be an invasion of North Korea to overthrow the regime.

Update: A naval quarantine of North Korea would be hard to organize:

But turning those interdictions into a strategy may prove difficult. The United States Navy carried out the Cuban quarantine itself; this one would require nervous South Korean and Japanese politicians risking a confrontation with an angry neighbor, as well as the cooperation of the Chinese. China, concerned that refugees would flood across the border, fears a collapse of the North Korean government.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 20 03:00 AM  Korea

Karma said at May 20, 2003 6:10 AM:

This might get Beijing’s attention.
Full report…

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