Yesterday, the press reported that after months of multilateral bungling, we had finally transferred either 20 or 25 million dollars of frozen assets to the disposal of Kim Jong Il for whatever purposes he chooses. Those assets had gathered in a shady Macau Bank known as Banco Delta Asia until September 2005, when the Treasury Department published an interim rule noting that they were, in large part, laundered proceeds of counterfeiting and drug dealing. Does anyone think Kim’s purposes will now include the feeding of his desperately hungry subjects?
[Update: According to more recent reports, the Russians have now taken their own turn at bungling the transfer. It’s not completely clear whether Kim Jong Il is spending it yet.]
There are almost too many levels on which this is repellent for me to know where to start, but let’s start with this: it will not help us disarm Kim Jong Il (in fact, our suspicions about how Kim has been spending the U.N.’s money suggest exactly the opposite (ht)). Returning this money was never a part of the new Agreed Framework Bush’s man, Chris Hill, signed on February 13th. That agreement marked a staggering reversal of a strategy that had once demanded the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of all of North Korea’s nuclear programs before it would receive any regime-sustaining benefits or payoffs. The policy we abandoned had also promised an element of principle: it seemed to suggest that Kim Jong Il’s treatment of his own people would be on the agenda one day, though exactly how was never clear.
The shutdown of one decrepit reactor and the invitation of a few U.N. inspectors were a part of the agreement, but those things did not happen by April 13th, a deadline that came and went two months ago. Here is the 60-day scorecard for North Korea’s compliance, if you can’t already guess what it might show. As of today, 60 days later, none of it has changed.
My guess is that putting a piece of yellow tape over the reactor door and letting in some U.N. inspectors are two concessions that Kim Jong Il will eventually give for the right price. After all, each is easily reversible for any convenient pretext. Call them “pink” lines. The “red” lines that Kim will never cross are his agreement to fully disclose all of his nuclear programs or let us verify the completeness of that disclosure. If I’m right about that, the February agreement really looks like a thinly veiled excuse for both Kim and Bush to “discuss” those matters for the next 18 months, as the press obligingly looks the other way, and as the Bush Administration prepares to exit from office claiming that peace is at hand. In reality, it will have solved nothing, but will have helped to perpetuate a tyranny that uses famine as a weapon of mass terror, manslaughter, or murder; that gasses children with their parents; that treats the handicapped like untermenschen; that kidnaps the innocent citizens of its neighbors and distant nations; that runs gargantuan concentration camps of unspeakable cruelty; and that murders infants it suspects of being racially impure. Even as these topics are politely swept out of our diplomatic conversation, Kim Jong Il will keep building a new plutonium reactor much larger than the one at Yongbyon, he’ll continue his parallel uranium enrichment program, and of course, he’ll keep the bombs he already has.
Standing next to this, it’s almost insignificant that this transaction appears to violate a section of the criminal code prohibiting transactions in “criminally derived property.” Although an uncharactically uncritical press has said little about it, several of this President’s co-partisans in Congress have just demanded a GAO inquiry into whether this transaction was itself money laundering (Here’s the full text of their letter to the GAO). How much of this money did Kim Jong Il collect by counterfeiting U.S. currency or trafficking in narcotics? The State Department won the bureaucratic struggle before Treasury completed its investigation, but just last fall, a “senior administration official” said of Kim Jong Il’s deposits in BDA, “It is all one big criminal enterprise. You can’t separate it out.” Treasury’s final report on BDA’s North Korean deposits described their criminal connections and suspicious history in exhaustive detail.
Then there’s the fact that this transaction violates two U.N. resolutions the United States so recently expended such political capital to secure. The latter of those, Security Council Resolution 1718, was passed just last October, after North Korea’s partial success at testing a nuclear weapon and complete success at eventually extorting Dane Geld from us. One of 1718’s provisions required that nations giving money to this Caligula of the East “ensure” that those funds were not used for his personal pleasure or weapons of terror, even as his people live hand-to-mouth to survive each day.
What have we given up for those dubious benefits? A chance to gain everything that Kim Jong Il will never give us, including a lasting peace, by ending Kim Jong Il’s misrule. Treasury’s pressure on North Korea’s money laundering was reported to have “dealt a severe blow to [North Korea’s] economy,” “dried up its financial system,” “brought [its] foreign trade virtually to an end,” and had a “snowballing … avalanche effect” that created “huge pressure” on the regime. The Banco Delta action and Treasury’s implicit threats to take similar actions elsewhere cost Kim Jong Il financial relationships not just in Macau, but in China, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and South Korea. Eventually, Kim was forced to start selling off his gold reserves, and even reportedly confided in Chinese President Hu Jintao that he feared the collapse of his government. Without question, that pressure was also our best hope of getting a disarmament deal on favorable and verifiable terms, if we’d only had the courage to insist on them.
North Korea is only one of the issues on which Bush has lost his sense of direction. Others have noticed the change in a broader sense. The irony here is that Bush appears to be trying to court the favor of those who loathe him because of Iraq, but even he can see that to follow invasion with surrender — and the terror and genocide that would undoubtedly follow — can only assure failure when success is still possible. Instead, he surrenders everywhere else: endless nuclear diplomacy with Iran even as it kills our soldiers, a fruitless giveaway to North Korea, and soon, more largesse for the corrupt and unpopular collection of geriatric terrorists known as Fatah. It’s a wonder that even 29 percent of the people can support an approach that seems calculated to alienate everyone.
In a country that is so sharply polarized between fighting terror and surrendering to it, a middle way is an exceedingly difficult route to chart unless you have an exceptional compass and rudder. Lacking these — and let’s face it, it was either this or John Kerry — the best you can do is choose sides and hope that no more than 45% of the people will despise you. The middle way does not consist of appeasing some terrorists and fighting others. It consists of picking your battles judiciously and fighting with the force of arms only when you must. In the case of North Korea, we were fighting with our soft power, and we were winning, until we threw away so much of what we had gained. Had we applied that power wholeheartedly, we might be talking about how to feed and reconstruct a post-Kim Jong Il North Korea by now. Instead, we’ve assured that Bush’s successor will be tempted to make the same bad decisions he and his predecessors made. That’s why we’ll be talking about this issue until Kim Jong Il’s rule collapses under the weight of his own brutality and inefficiency, or until his ticker gives out from all the excess and binge-drinking.
Our hopes for that latter outcome also dimmed this week after a team of German doctors reportedly flew in, performed either artery or heart surgery on Kim Jong Il, and once again compounded the interest on their nation’s rather substantial debt to history. As they say, “first, do no harm.” So the outcome of this struggle, as with so many others, will be decided by the balance of incompetence. The government that exercises more stupidity than the other will lose, probably dragging about four million innocents down with it, give or take two million.
There is still a small amount of time for Bush to reverse this disaster. North Korea’s bad faith should be manifest to anyone. Today, North Korea is demanding that the United States abandon its global missile defense plan and drop all sanctions against the regime, presumably even those covering dual-use technology. If North Korea wants additional reasons to stand on its “pink” lines, stall our demands on the “red” lines, and extract even greater concessions, it will link those new demands to its own compliance on disarmament, just as it did the issue of its dirty money. Certainly North Korea will never allow broader inspections of its suspect facilities or re-admit the existence of its uranium program. Any of those occurences should make it clear to anyone amenable to reason that Kim Jong Il will never disarm voluntarily. The seventh year of Bush’s presidency ought to conclusively refute the harshest critics of his North Korea policy for the first six years, as indecisive and halfhearted as it was. Now that we have given Kim Jong Il everything they’ve been saying we should give him, can they explain why he still won’t disarm? Having moved beyond what should be obvious, it will be time to take our soft power campaign back to where it had been, to the next level, and to its logical conclusion.
We must get rid of Kim Jong Il to disarm North Korea of nuclear weapons, but we need not invade North Korea to get rid of Kim Jong Il. Indeed, a reduction of our obsolete force structure in South Korea would be a prudent first step. The last thing we want is to be dragged into another Korean War, and the presence of 29,500 American service members in South Korea is a boon to Kim Jong Il’s propaganda. Today, with the threat of a North Korean invasion diminished, our troops are less needed to defend the South, but are more at risk as hostages to the North’s artillery and missiles. It is time for us to move beyond the military and diplomatic solutions that have failed us. We should instead shift our focus to the political and economic vulnerabilities of Kim Jong Il’s brutal, unpopular, and inefficient regime.
See also: GI Korea’s take.
Update 2: Chris Hill reacts to North Korea’s latest offer — no specifics or dates — to finally invite in U.N. inspectors:
Obviously, it is a welcome step. It’s got to be followed by a number of other steps,” said Hill, speaking to reporters on a trip to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. “Everyone has a lot of work to do in the days and weeks ahead.” [WaPo]
That’s nothing. Wait until you see all the work he has to do explaining what the North Koreans actually did to shut the reactor down. An insider source tells me to expect something very superficial and reversible — think yellow tape across the door — though even that concession has been sold for a tyrant’s ransom. Watch.