Ralph Cossa is wrong; Pressure on North Korea worked, when applied

Generally, I agree with  Robert Koehler  that Lee Myung Bak’s landslide victory was anything but a mandate for a better, more moral North Korea policy.  It will put  less irrational people in charge, but the policy will not be the improvement that Nicholas Eberstadt hopes for unless Kim Jong Il gets seriously on the wrong side of  Lee Myung-Bak’s temper. Why?   First, the election was all about money.  Second, Lee Myung Bak is all about money.  Third, South Korean voters  … well, they care a lot more about money than they care about a few million  dead North  Koreans.  They  may want a bit more  return  for the money they send to North Korea, but there’s no evidence of a fundamental shift away from their deeply ethnocentric  and anti-American world view.  Another nation may have more decisively failed such a great test of morality and statesmanship, but I can’t think of a better example than South Korea’s last decade.

Nor has the prognosis for U.S.-Korea relations changed overnight.  The fervor of their anti-Americanism  may have  waned  recently, though there  are reasons to question the limited evidence for that.  The fervor of South Korea’s anti-Americanism cooled  after the ugly days of the late 1980’s, too.  A decade later, during my four-year tour in Korea, I watched it come back with a vengeance.  Lee will be able to briefly arrest the decay in the U.S.-Korea alliance, but any improvement will be mostly confined to the cocktail party circuit unless Lee takes a persuasive case for the alliance to the people (he won’t).

It’s natural for Americans to see in Lee what they want to see and  to use the occasion of his election to make the case for policies they themselves favor.  I can abide most of that just fine,  up to the point where they misstate facts that any “expert” ought to have known:

[T]here will no doubt be some in Washington who will see a conservative victory as an opportunity to once again revert to the more confrontational (and largely ineffective) policies of the past; this would be a huge mistake.   [Korea Times, Ralph Cossa]  

Cossa isn’t just wrong once here.  First, to say this is to imply that the current policy of the Bush  Administration is working, at least better than last year’s.  Cossa  didn’t exactly write  that piece while serving on a sequestered jury; he appears to  recognize that North Korea is not only missing its year-end deadline to  declare  its nuclear programs, it’s halting the much-vaunted “disablement” of the worn-out wreck of a reactor at Yongbyon.  The State Department will try to blunt the clarity of North Korea’s breach by  turning it into the  next extended negotiation.  If that fools you, you want to be fooled.

Cossa makes his clearest error when he calls the “confrontational … policies of the past” “largely ineffective.”  If he has any idea what he’s talking about there, his piece doesn’t reveal it.  He really ought to read what Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard  had to say about that:

We think we know why North Korea is softening, or at least appears to be.  We’ve been working on an in-depth profile of the North Korean economy, and it is in serious trouble. The North Korean economy had been in weak but steady recovery since 1999, growing about 15 percent over the next six years despite its isolation and increasing backwardness. Then came a new setback. Last year the national income contracted by 1.1 percent, according to the South Korean government. Our research suggests the main reason for the downturn was that U.S.-led sanctions hit harder than most people realize. Now more than ever, North Korea needs the financial benefits of a nuclear deal to survive.

The sanctions struck a feeble economy from many sides. The United States led actions to shut down North Korea’s missile trade, and put the squeeze on its illicit smuggling and counterfeiting revenue. The black-market rate on North Korea’s currency plummeted after a small bank in Macau, central to the North’s money-laundering activities, was shut down. Japan effectively cut off a heavy flow of remittances to Pyongyang from North Koreans in Japan. We estimate that together with legal arms sales, revenue from contraband–including the production and trafficking of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, smuggling of liquor and endangered-species parts, to name a few–may have accounted for as much as half of North Korea’s exports in the late 1990s but has fallen to roughly 15 percent in recent years due to sanctions. In the meantime, aid now finances 40 percent of imports. There are benefits to playing nice in the nuclear talks–or pretending to.  [Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, Newsweek]

Noland and Haggard  are probably America’s two  foremost experts on the North Korean economy, and while one is entitled to disagree with  their views — I’ve done so directly — no expert worth his salt throws out a conclusion like Cossa’s without dealing with a wealth of evidence to the contrary.  That evidence  begins with the conclusions of Noland and Haggard, but doesn’t  stop there:

By December of 2005, North Korean front companies, with no means to recoup their often-illegal earnings, began fleeing Macau en masse. Many reportedly went to the Chinese mainland. The following February, Kim Jong Il reportedly told Chinese President Hu Jintao that he feared the collapse of his government. The Asian Wall Street Journal reported that Treasury’s action had “dealt a severe blow to the secretive country,” “dried up its financial system,” and “brought foreign trade virtually to an end.  

In April, Treasury claimed that the designation of Banco Delta was having a “snowballing “¦ avalanche effect” on North Korea as other banks sought to cut their ties, creating “huge pressure” on the regime. Treasury pursued North Korea’s assets to banks in Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, and elsewhere. Banks in all of these countries also closed or blocked North Korean accounts. Pressure mounted. Kim Jong Il even began selling off his nation’s gold reserves, much of it mined in his slave labor camps, particularly Camp 15 (Yodok) and Camp 77 (Dancheon). Still, North Korea had effectively lost most of its access to international finance. [Gordon Cucullu and Joshua Stanton, Front Page Magazine]  

What Cossa and other critics would be better advised to attack is what the Bush Administration’s policy was from 2001 to mid-2005:  a lot of confrontational rhetoric in tandem with endless and pointless talks,  without any actual confrontational policy to back it and attach tangible  consequences to North Korea’s behavior.  That policy didn’t work; in fact,  it would  be too generous to describe it as a policy at all. 

The argument that Cossa seems to make instead  plows through a raft of logical flaws.  First, if confrontation doesn’t work, why has it worked so damned well for Kim Jong Il?  Second, how does the failure of our negotiators to take advantage of  highly effective financial pressure  weaken the case that that pressure was working?  Third, why is “confrontational” always judged on North Korea’s terms — usually  meaning someone missed  an extortion payment?  Fourth, after all of our years of experience with North Korea, when has  it ever been  possible to deal with North Korea (if that’s  really possible at all) by applying moral suasion alone, without the assistance of any external  pressure?  Cossa is really saying that diplomacy alone can disarm people who think like the  North Koreans.  Any bail bondman, prison guard, bookie, or crack whore  knows better.

Now  imagine how well  our  financial pressure  might have worked if  we had  applied it  for more than a mere  year and a half, and if  it had been loosed on Kaesong, Kumgang, and other massive subsidies China and South Korea  (our supposed ally)  used to prop up Kim Jong Il’s palace economy and undermine the effectiveness of our pressure.  For the first time ever, Kim Jong Il might have been forced to relinquish some of his control to preserve his misrule.  Naturally, we had to abandon this policy because it worked.  This is Washington, and that’s  our tradition. 

A better, wiser, and more morally defensible  approach to North Korea will not happen in the absence of leadership, and forecasts call for an extended absence of that.  Bush will not lead South Korea, Japan, and other nations in confrontational  directions they would prefer not to go, and Lee Myung-Bak will not lead South Koreans in confrontational directions they would prefer not to go.  Therefore, we will be rudderless, and  Kim Jong Il’s regime will have to collapse on its own.   The only  question  is how many people will be doomed in the meantime. 


  1. Some people just can’t bring themselves to consider that force is also a tool of negociation. Somehow, in the Western mindset of higher education and State Department-think, “diplomacy” only means that if everybody will sit down at a table and speak nice to each other, problems will be solved ——– no matter how much the real world shows that not to be the case.

    There was an article out of the UK some time ago by a liberal who confessed this nature of he as his collegues from the 60s to now. They couldn’t bring themselves to admit their dreams were hopeless because they could find no formulation that would work on regimes like the one in Pyongyang and it only made them bitter that what did work (from time to time only) were means antithetical to their ideals, and this was what led them to be so critical of much of Western foreign policy —– in desperation to feel like they could make a difference, they turned their frustration on the one side they had some chance of influencing — and in the end pretty much crossing their fingers hoping against all hope that a change of heart on one side could bring about movement on the other.

    I’m not saying this is Cossa himself. I am saying it is a symptom of the malaise that is State Department-think.

    (And I guess it is pretty much a textbook definition of the Sunshine Policy)

    And this thinking has apparently settled into the Bush administration.

    It took years for the US to get what eventually proved to be effective pressure on the North. It made the North squirm and got them back to the table, but then we didn’t have enough sense and fortitude to follow through in the negociations themselves.

    This Cossa piece, and how the Bush administration has acted since the talks renewed, as well as the words of other analysts, just show how much they failed to learn anything from how North Korea was forced back to the table.

    Without that lesson seeping in, what we got was a rapid dismantling of what was working.

    And no reason to believe that lesson will be learned and applied again in the near future. Especially with a new administration slated to come into power in the US after next year.


  2. I agree that Cossa is way off-base on the assertion related to sanctions; Noland and Haggard already put that to bed.

    Hitchens’ anti-religious zealousness makes me take him much less seriously that I would otherwise.