Selected North Korea Commentary

The most depressing thing about North Korea’s April missile test wasn’t the test itself; it was the vacuousness of most of the reactions to it.  Many of the writers seemed poorly read on the facts, and conservatives and liberals had both stretched their credibility to defend the Bush and Clinton administrations, respectively, despite the general consistency of the policy through both administrations.  Recent events prove that both policies failed.

This time around, the commentary seems smarter and better informed.  Part of that may be because the crisis itself is burgeoning, and North Korea has how had our attention for enough time for people to educate themselves.  It can’t hurt that as the weeks pass, moot arguments about legacies recede:

We can already hear the response in world capitals that there is “no alternative” to this kind of policy accommodation. That’s what senior Bush State Department officials like Philip Zelikow, Christopher Hill and Condoleezza Rice asserted to win over Mr. Bush. But a concerted effort to squeeze North Korea economically was making a difference before Mr. Bush pulled the plug in 2007. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury took action against a bank in Macau that did business with North Korea, and Japan cracked down on illegal businesses sending cash to the North. Those financial sanctions could be resumed, and if backed by energy sanctions from China would get the North’s attention in a way that U.N. resolutions never will. The U.S. also has a reliable South Korean ally in President Lee Myung-bak, who has cut off aid to the North amid its recent provocations. [Editorial, Wall Street Journal]

Yes! They get it! The editorial, after reminding its readers that thugs everywhere are measuring the stuff of our president’s spine, has a strong finish:

Mr. Obama won the White House while promising that his brand of kinder, gentler diplomacy would better rally the world against bad actors. Now would be a good time, and North Korea the right place, to prove it.

There’s just one sour note, offered by Phillip Zelikow himself at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government column the next day.  The column doesn’t live up to its title, “How to Quarantine the Spreading Cancer of North Korea,” but it does a fine job of distancing Zelikow from Chris Hill:

Thus, during 2007, the United States and its allies could conclude that they would not be able to achieve a critical, realistic objective: a verifiable cap on North Korea’s capacity to build nuclear weapons and produce weapons-usable nuclear material. Such a concrete objective would have been worth the candle — a good prelude to a further, comprehensive phase of Korean diplomacy that would include the attainment of complete denuclearization, as required by UNSC 1718 and as pledged by North Korea in 1992, 2005, and 2007. Attainment of even that preliminary objective was in even greater doubt, though, given the evidence of 2007. Nonetheless, the United States helped construct a further agreement (Beijing, October 2007) to keep the diplomatic process afloat rather than move it to a new phase. Why? I don’t know.

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial listed me as first, ahead even of Chris Hill and Condi Rice, in persuading President Bush to make the October 2007 decision to keep that diplomatic track alive and take North Korea off the terror list. That rank ordering in supposed infamy is especially bizarre, since I had left the administration at the end of 2006. (Perhaps someone wanted to sling something at me because of my stance on terrorism issues, and this was the only available clod of mud.) [Foreign Policy, Shadow Government]

A trend that’s been more pronounced is the emphasis on China’s responsibility (to me, it’s really mischief) for making North Korea the threat it is, and a growing recognition that we’ve failed to make North Korea China’s problem, too.  Gordon Chang argues:

Hours after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea detonated its second atomic device, Beijing condemned the test. “The DPRK conducted another nuclear test in disregard of the common opposition of the international community,” a Foreign Ministry statement, issued May 25, noted. “The Chinese government is firmly opposed to this act.”

Is that so? Today, China supplies about 90% of North Korea’s oil, 80% of its consumer goods and 45% of its food. Beijing is Pyongyang’s only formal military ally and its primary backer in the United Nations Security Council and other diplomatic forums. If it weren’t for the Chinese, there would be no North Korean missile program, no North Korean nuclear program and no North Korea.  [Gordon Chang, Forbes]

Chang then takes on the argument that we have no leverage against China because of our current economic problems, noting that China has economic — and political — problems of its own:

In 2008, all but $29.2 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of $295.5 billion related to sales to the United States. In 2007, all but $5.9 billion of the overall surplus of $262.2 billion was attributable to sales to America. The United States relies on Beijing to buy American debt, but the Chinese export machine cannot function if China does not buy our obligations. If Beijing does not do so, it will further constrain the American economy. If Beijing further constrains the American economy, Americans will be able to buy even fewer Chinese goods than they are at the moment. If Americans buy fewer Chinese goods, the Chinese economy will fall even faster than it is doing so now. And if the Chinese economy declines any faster, the country’s political system will face increased tensions and difficulties.

Chang knows economics better than me, which means he makes a better argument.  But what common sense has told me all along was this:  China isn’t buying American debt because of its charitable feelings toward our society or system of government.  China buys our debt because it’s in China’s economic interest to buy our debt, rather than Japan’s or Europe’s. Another reason why I suspect China buys our debt is that it helps to stabilize Chinese banks with U.S.-backed securities.  (Chang has written of how Chinese banks are burdened with bad loans to parastatals, and had predicted — wrongly, so far — that those bad loans would cause China’s banking system to collapse.)

OFK favorite Nicholas Eberstadt has always been a particularly honest, consistent, and informed observer of Korea policy.  Nicholas Eberstadt makes the point — one that policymakers of both parties have missed — that the creation of crisis is North Korea’s modus operandi, and that America needs a plan to change North Korea instead of buying each successive crisis off Page One.  (Here’s a link to Eberstadt’s interview at this site from a few years back; much of Eberstadt’s analysis is, sadly for us all, just as relevant now as it was then.)

Also worth reading:  William H. Tobey on the real North Korean threat to America, which is proliferation.

Finally, I couldn’t resist quoting this piece from the liberal Huffington Post.  It contains some misses and gaps of knowledge about North Korea, though it reads as if the author is familiar with the mechanics of diplomacy.  But since when have you heard a full-throated roar like this from a neocon?

The time has come to end the average North Korean’s suffering. In short, I am recommending we starve Kim Chong-il out. Or at least cause his population to finally treat him as the Italians did Mussolini. Permanently fixing the North Korean problem requires shattering the regime. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, it is time North Koreans refresh the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. [Eric C. Anderson, Huffington Post]


  1. I’m liking the WSJ/WaPo’s editorial boards a lot…especially their past coverage of human rights in North Korea. Too bad NYT hasn’t gotten on the ball, especially when I always thought to be liberal meant that there should be a greater concern for the voiceless. Meh.

    When Anderson quoted good ole’ Thomas Jefferson, I teared up a bit. Shatter Kim Ching-Chang-Chong Il’s regime into a million pieces!!!


  2. JH,

    I understand and share your distaste for KJI, but you don’t have to go racist to prove your point.


  3. Check Eric Anderson’s spelling of “KJI.”

    I was also mocking his neocon yawp if that was lost…


  4. I like the Jefferson quote. I wish this thing could be solved peacefully, but I don’t think it can be realistically. The only way the North Koreans are ever going to be free, I believe, is if they raise up to their government or we use milarity force.