Eberstadt: What Went Wrong

So over the weekend, I finally had a chance to read Nicholas Eberstadt’s fine summary of the Bush Administration’s eight years of drift and indecision on North Korea (hat tip to Robert Koehler). It’s hard to pick a favorite passage, but this one certainly struck a chord:

In the absence of a coherent policy, though, the imperative of “success” in talks with North Korea suddenly took on a life of its own for the Bush team. (After all, there was no alternative strategy, no “plan B,” for what to do if the talks came to an unsuccessful end.) Consequently, instead of crafting our conference diplomacy with Pyongyang in accordance with our overall strategy for North Korean threat reduction, our efforts at North Korean threat reduction came to be tailored to the perceived needs of our conference diplomacy. [Nicholas Eberstadt, The Weekly Standard]

I’d be sincerely flattered if that choice of words wasn’t coincidental. The main shortcoming of Eberstadt’s piece may have been its lack of explanation, beyond the Banco Delta Asia example, of what Eberstadt’s own Plan B might include. What’s really been missing from almost every discussion about how to deal with North Korea is an alternative to the false choice between appeasement and war; after all, it’s hard to sell a better alternative if you don’t articulate what it is. So, with the duty to pick nits duly discharged, Eberstadt’s work is certainly the best historical summary of GWB’s North Korea policy I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s too bad so little will be learned from it.

Robert is probably right that South Koreans are a lost cause when it comes to the development of some unselfish compassion for the North Korean people. I’ve been ready to write South Korea off as an ally in any meaningful strategic sense for years, ironically because I believe that it will take a U.S. demonstration of its willingness to “see other people” before South Koreans re-learn the difference between alliance and colonialism. (If this piece is correct, that demonstration may not be far off.)

Robert also questions whether squeezing North Korea can work without China’s cooperation, pointing to the example of Rhodesia’s success at evading some poorly designed, poorly enforced U.N. sanctions. Thinking that some more current economic statistics would be helpful here, I tried to call my local Rhodesian embassy, but for some reason, I was unable to locate a listing for one. I was able to find this Peterson Institute study, however, which notes that the success of economic sanctions depends on many factors, such as the goal of the sanctions, the economic resilience of the target, the attractiveness of the target’s exports, and the will of other parties to support the sanctions regime. Rhodesia was a major exporter of minerals and agricultural products, including beef and tobacco. North Korea’s export customer base consists of crank addicts in Harajuku. Indeed, we’ve learned that the microeconomy that sustains North Korea’s power structure is actually quite fragile.

But what really distinguishes the failure of the Rhodesia sanctions from the demonstrated success of the Banco Delta sanctions was the willingness of the U.S. Treasury to impose and enforce them unilaterally on banks doing business with North Korea, thus severing the regime’s ability to recoup its ill-gotten gains. That’s why U.S. sanctions could be applied to a Chinese bank located on Chinese soil, without China’s cooperation, and still have such a devastating effect. If you won’t take my word for the success of those sanctions, take Marcus Noland’s. And the BDA sanctions were a pale shadow of the many financial tools in America’s kit bag. Since the BDA sanctions were imposed, the United Nations has passed two new resolutions (1695 and 1718) that are far tougher than anything it levied against Rhodesia. China voted for 1718, which contains very tough economic restrictions, but has thus far felt little U.S. pressure to enforce it.

Now, I don’t suggest for a moment that President Obama is likely to impose tough economic measures on the North Koreans right away, if ever. He’ll dither for at least a year while his new diplomats try their new Jedi mind tricks on their ruthless interlocutors. But when the diplomats finally realize that negotiations alone will get us nowhere, they will have other, stronger cards to play.