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.