Obama Forms Team Plan B

The Washington Post is reporting that President Obama is forming an inter-agency team, much like the Illicit Activities Initiative that David Asher headed in G.W. Bush’s first term, to coordinate sanctions against North Korea:

The White House is forming an interagency team to coordinate sanctions efforts against North Korea with other nations, senior administration officials said yesterday.  The team will be led by Philip S. Goldberg, a former ambassador to Bolivia who is slated to leave for China in the near future as the United States seeks concerted action to punish North Korea for recently conducting a second nuclear test.  [Washington Post, Michael D. Shear]

goldberg_250.jpgGoldberg is an interesting choice to head the project.  Like OFK nemesis Christopher Hill, Goldberg previously served in Bosnia and appears to be a crony of Richard Holbrooke.  But on a more encouraging note, while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Goldberg was accused of supporting the opposition, declared a “persona non grata,” and expelled by leftist thug Evo Morales.  For now, Goldberg’s mission in life will be to squeeze Kim Jong Il:

“There is a broad consensus about the need to have a focused and engaged effort to see that these sanctions are implemented . . . and that we’re sharing information with each other,” one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The officials said they are hoping the group — with representatives from the State Department, the White House, the National Security Agency, the Treasury Department and others — will help “shine a spotlight” on Pyongyang’s actions.

“We wanted somebody who woke up every morning and thought about nothing but sanctions implementation,” one official said. “It’s a huge difference when you have somebody who isn’t worried about any of the other aspects of this.”  [….]

Administration officials say they will not stop pursuing sanctions unless North Korea takes “irreversible steps” to dismantle its program to show it is serious about talks.  [Washington Post, Michael D. Shear]

The New York Times adds:

The administration is focusing much of its efforts on freezing assets and cutting off financial flows that support North Korea’s trade in weapons, missiles and nuclear technology. These efforts are being led by Stuart A. Levey, an under secretary of the Treasury, who was one of the few senior members of the Bush administration to be held over by President Obama.

The appointment of Mr. Goldberg is intended partly to head off the kind of turf battles that have grown out of Mr. Levey’s actions. For example, in 2005, the Treasury Department moved against an obscure bank based in Macao that handled transactions for the North Korean government, a campaign widely regarded as one of the most successful efforts to squeeze the North.

But later, when the State Department was trying to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear program, the Treasury sanctions against the bank proved to be an irritant, and difficult to unwind.

Mr. Goldberg’s primary task, another administration official said, would be “to make sure there is broader interagency coordination,” not just between the State Department and the Treasury, but also the Pentagon, the Commerce Department and the Department of Homeland Security.  [N.Y. Times, Mark Landler]

For now, Obama is probably doing what a consummate politician always does — trying to stay on the right side of the mood in Congress and public opinion.  Both have turned surly:

Obama told CBS, “What we’re not going to do is to reward belligerence and provocation.

A diplomatic source in Washington who is familiar with the Obama administration’s Korea policy said the strengthened position of the U.S. government is a reflection of the public anger mounting against North Korea. “Most Americans are worried and angered by the North’s missile and nuclear threats, especially during this tough economic situation,” the source said.

A Gallup poll conducted last week suggested that 51 percent of Americans believe North Korea poses the greatest direct threat to U.S. security. About 46 percent said Iran was a direct threat to the United States, while 35 percent said Iraq and 35 percent, Afghanistan.

In a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, more Americans appear to support military action against North Korea than those opposing it. In a similar poll conducted shortly after the North’s first nuclear test in October 2006, the public was split over possible U.S. military action.

A prominent U.S. politician also toughened his position toward the North. Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Senator John McCain said the U.S. military should board North Korean ships even without North Korea’s permission if there is evidence the vessel is carrying cargo in violation of UN resolutions.  [Joongang Ilbo]

Conservatives continue to criticize Obama for a weak response to North Korea.  Some of the criticism, particularly that which suggests a direct military option, is extremely ill advised.  Some of the criticism has merits:  in particular, Obama’s diplomats at the U.N. should have insisted on the right to board North Korean WMD ships on the high seas, by force if necessary.  The futile tracking of the Kang Nam I illustrates this.

On the other hand, President Obama’s emerging economic strategy against North Korea is, for now, shaping up exactly as it should.  With a single alert issued by the Treasury Department, President Obama may have focused more economic pressure on the North Koreans than President Bush ever did.  Obama should also be credited for not kowtowing to North Korea’s belligerence and seeking another pointless Agreed Framework, as Bush ultimately did.  President Obama still needs to do much more.  Watch for the following signs:

  1. Will President Obama ask the Democratic leadership in Congress to work with Republicans who are now drafting tough economic sanctions legislation against North Korea?  That legislation, of which I’ve seen drafts, would empower the President to implement UNSCR 1718 and 1874 as intended, and to put real economic pressure on the regime.  If Senators Reid and Kerry, and Representatives Pelosi and Berman, continue to balk at supporting this legislation, it suggests either that President Obama isn’t seeking more powerful tools against the Kim dynasty or isn’t taking a coordinated approach to applying them.
  2. Will senior Treasury Department officials go back on tour to speak to bankers in Russia, Switzerland, and China to discourage them from doing business with North Korea?  Will they make subtle hints or leaks against banks that don’t initially cooperate?
  3. Will the Treasury Department designate North Korea — its entire government — as an entity of primary money laundering concern under the PATRIOT Act amendments to the Bank Secrecy Act?  In particular, watch for which special measures Treasury imposes under Section 5318A of Title 31.  The most powerful of these, the Fifth Special Measure, would completely sever North Korea’s links to the international financial system and do severe harm to its ability to feed and pay its military and elite.
  4. Will the Justice Department issue indictments against North Korea for its counterfeiting of U.S. currency?  Several months ago, I was informed by a reliable and knowledgeable source that during President Bush’s first term, Justice Department attorneys had prepared an indictment against North Korea for printing and laundering counterfeit currency.  The indictment was complete and ready to be filed, but at the eleventh hour, the State Department intervened and blocked the indictment.  No doubt, someone in the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section still has a copy, somewhere in a hard drive or a dusty accordion file.  The time has come to dust that file off.

Each of these options would have been unthinkable in the period of time between December 2006 and May 2009, when American Presidents had invested their policies in Kim Jong Il’s good faith.  Certainly, this does not exhaust the options for us to pressure the Kim dynasty.  The greatest threat to his system of government continues to be the great majority of his own population, which overwhelmingly resents its government, but in a manner that’s probably unfocused, misdirected, and without real hope for realizing a better system.  The most effective pressure would be to extend our subversive outreach to their discontent.  Of this, I intend to say much more another day.

Treasury acknowledges that economic pressure will take time to “bite.”  How much time?  Treasury levied sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in September 2005, and by December 2006, North Korea’s regime was beginning to experience a degree of the economic distress to which it has subjected its people for decades.  They sought out Chris Hill, looking for a way to take the pressure off, and found a willing accomplice.  It’s hard to say how much longer it would have taken for the pressure to build sufficiently to allow Hill to get a much better deal — one with strict deadlines, an admission of the uranium enrichment program, and a commitment to real transparency.

It’s also worth remembering that last time, economic pressure was effective in spite of Chinese and South Korean efforts to undermine it.  South Korea has since flipped back to our side; its aid to North Korea has fallen dramatically, and it will fall much further when the terminal illness of the Kaesong Industrial Park terminates.  China is already balking at the financial provisions of UNSCR 1874 and signaling that it will not impose sanctions, which was to be expected but should not be tolerated.  Our goal should be to pressure China sufficiently to prevent it from effectively offsetting and undermining the effect of the combined sanctions of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Europe. The pressure begins with abandoning the pretense of unity:

“China has been unhelpful, especially on the issue of North Korea,” said McCain, his party’s 2008 presidential candidate, as he and two other leading senators unveiled plans for legislation to help Iranian dissidents.

“I think it’s time we told the Chinese that an important part of our relationship is how they react as far as North Korea is conncerned, but also as far as Iran is concerned,” the Arizona lawmaker added.  [AFP]

If President Obama can manage to block Chinese enabling of North Korea while other nations constrict it, it’s reasonable to believe that by the end of his first term, North Korea can be forced into permanent and irreversible disarmament of all of the weapons we know about, or which our inspectors are allowed to find.

The limitations of this are obvious — the combination of our intelligence assessments and North Korea’s disclosures will almost certainly fall short of North Korea’s full WMD capability, and the greatest danger to effecting lasting disarmament remains President Obama’s unpredicatable commitment to sustaining economic pressure until it achieves concrete national security objectives.  Obama’s supporters on the extreme left have already rebelled against his tougher approach, and when North Korea expresses a willingness to deal again, Obama will be sorely tempted to secure a deal — even an imperfect one that gets worse as North Korea steadily balks at and reneges on key terms.  This is how North Korea always slips away without disarming.  The best defense against this tactic is to keep sanctions in effect with full force until all of the Yongbyon facilities are completely destroyed, along with what we assess to be North Korea’s complete nuclear arsenal, stockpiles of fissile material, and uranium enrichment program.

If North Korea shows no interest in those terms, of course, there’s always the alternative of turning the screws until a different Korean leader gains control over North Korea’s nuclear programs.  Here, I speak not of Kim Jong Un, but of Lee Myung Bak.


  1. “We wanted somebody who woke up every morning and thought about nothing but sanctions implementation,” one official said. “It’s a huge difference when you have somebody who isn’t worried about any of the other aspects of this.”

    That’s one of the most interesting things I’ve heard related to NK policy in a long time. I’d love to know how high or key the person is who said it and more about what it means to them…

    And in reading this excellent post, especially all the stuff about Treasury and State, it dawned on me — I can’t remember the last time I read anything about the CIA and other such org’s effort related to North Korea???

    That could be a good thing — if the CIA and such are busy on the NK problem but just keeping it secret and out of the press. But, it could be a major disaster if the silence means they aren’t much involved in anything NK-related.

    Since fear of the unknowns if/when collapse comes is what gives State much of its leverage, doing our best to condition the collapse should be one of our primary focal points if not the primary focal point. — Because collapse is inevitable. When is just unknown.