2003 July 03 Thursday
Lawrence Kaplan Analyses Bush Policy On North Korea

Lawrence F. Kaplan has an article on TNR about the Bushie Pyongyang policy entitled Split Personality.

Bolton, whose hawkish foreign policy views routinely put him at odds with his State colleagues, has never had much use for the blandishments America's diplomatic corps favors in its dealings with North Korea. In response to the latest round of provocations from Pyongyang, which included an announcement that it possesses a nuclear weapon, Bolton--along with Condoleezza Rice, National Security Council counterproliferation point man Robert Joseph, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney--has devised a new policy toward the Stalinist state. The Bolton strategy, as Koreawatchers have dubbed it, calls for the selective interdiction of ships from the North carrying drugs, missiles, and weapons technology. These illicit exports, bound for the likes of Yemen and Pakistan, net Pyongyang roughly $1 billion per year, almost twice the amount of its legitimate exports. Administration officials claim the strategy's goals are fairly straightforward: "strangulation" followed by "regime change." Hence, its supporters see no pressing need for negotiations with the North.

Part of that trade in weapons (in drugs too?) takes place via airplanes that travel from North Korea to the Middle East with stops at airfields in China. Interdiction of ships alone will not stop all of it. Plus, some might be getting smuggled into China and out into the world via Chinese ports and ships. China has had plenty of time to reconsider their policy toward North Korea and cut off these avenues of export for the North Koreans. Well, so far it looks like the Chinese leaders are going to continue to support the Pyongyang regime. So how much of the $1 billion in trade can be stopped by the US and its allies? I'd like to know whether the Bush Administration has any internal estimates on that score and what those estimates are.

To put that $1 billion dollar figure for arms and drug trade revenues in perspective, the CIA thinks the North Korean economy is about $22 billion per year total. So even if all the North Korean drugs and arms trade could be cut (which seems highly doubtful) the loss would amount to less than 5% of their total economy. Still, there would be multiplier effects if that happened because the North Koreans use some of currency generated by those exports to buy inputs (e.g. oil, metals, electronics, etc) that are essential for making some parts of their economy operate.

But then there is the question of just what percentage of the essential external inputs to the North Korean economy are actually being paid for by the North Korean regime. Some of those inputs are being paid for by the Chinese foreign aid budget for North Korea. Some might be coming as aid paid for by the South Korean government. So we can't stop all North Korean exports and they do not have to pay for all their essential inputs anyhow.

While Kaplan thinks it unlikely that partial sanctions will bring down the regime he sees the Bush Administration policy toward North Korea as being more a case of a box half full than half empty (not that he uses that phrase) and his article is written in a fairly optimistic tone. He thinks the Bush Administration informal partial sanctions policy is an improvement and does increase pressure on the regime. Still, when he comes down to the end of his analysis he still concludes that North Korea will get nuclear weapons before partial sanctions cause enough damage to the regime to bring it down. Well, hey, I reach the same conclusion and that is precisely why the box looks half empty to me.

His analysis is worth a read if you are interested in following the twists and turns of US policy toward North Korea and the thinking of various factions in and outside of the Administration. He's collected some good on and off the record quotes from a variety of people. But given that he agrees current policy is probably not sufficient to prevent North Korea from building a bunch of nuclear weapons. Given that North Korea's possession of a bunch of nuclear weapons is, to put it mildly, not a problem whose many ramifications (e.g. a nuclear blast radius extending out from perhaps Long Beach harbor or San Diego harbor) we want to deal with I am disappointed that Kaplan did not talk about additional policy options besides sanctions and negotiations.

The mainstream public policy debate in the US about North Korea's nuclear program continues to be marked by a distinct lack of imaginative and creative thinking. One can hope that more clever and subtle discussions of a much wider range of policy options is happening secretly in Dick Cheney's office or in Langley or the Pentagon. But I read a lot on North Korea and I do not see any visible signs that this is the case. In hopes of enriching the public debate about North Korea let me briefly repeat once again some suggestions for covert operations aimed at North Korea:

  • The US should launch a massive effort to get books and radios into North Korea to break the North Korean regime information monopoly over its own people. Ships and submarines could be used to release sealed packages that could then float with prevailing currents onto North Korean beaches.
  • North Korean illegal aliens in China could be reached with materials to read and with financial aid. Some of those reached will eventually return to North Korea with a lot more knowledge about the outside world and with political and economic ideas that are now unknown to them. The presence of North Koreans in China (and in Russia for that matter) should be treated as an opportunity to reach people who are much more difficult to reach in North Korea.
  • Border guards could be offered bribes to let in books and radios.
  • The CIA and cooperating friendly intelligence services should organize an effort to reach all North Koreans who travel outside of the country with official permission. Attempts should be made to get information and little gifts into their hands. The goals should be to try to corrupt them and to change their thinking. Books and radios could be left in hotel rooms and offices where they stay, in North Korean ships that dock in ports of other nations, and even in luggage of travelling North Koreans.

Basically, I'm arguing for a massive set of covert operations to reach North Koreans with information and to corrupt and compromise them. Yes, there would be risks for CIA agents and for agents of allied intelligence services trying to operate in China, Russia, and other countries around the world. There'd be risks for locals who were hired by intelligence agents as well. But some of the operations could be run from friendly countries. Plus, some could be run as naval operations with submerged subs releasing materials to float to the surface and then toward North Korean beaches. See the comments section of my previous post North Korean Leaders: Let Them Eat Sneakers for additional ideas for covert operations against the North Korean regime.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 July 03 12:36 AM  Politics Grand Strategy


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