Cheonan conclusions will mean tougher N. Korea policies … for a while, anyway

It certainly looks like every government official outside Beijing who has seen the evidence now believes that North Korea sank the Cheonan and killed 46 members of its crew. Among those who have drawn their conclusions are the South Korean government, the Obama Administration, and the Republicans in Congress. The multinational investigation is now sufficiently advanced that the official Yonhap News Agency says that the findings could be released as early as next week. One interesting leak references a stray North Korean torpedo the ROK Navy recovered several years ago. The investigators are now comparing it to aluminum fragments recovered near where the Cheonan sank, and which don’t appear to be pieces from the ship.

The South Korean government’s comments are not exactly, but tantamount to, a conclusion of North Korean guilt:

“The sinking of the Cheonan has shown the world the cruel reality of division” on the Korean Peninsula, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said in a speech to a forum in Seoul. His comments came hours after a presidential aide for political affairs said “an external attack was highly likely” to have sank the 1,200 corvette, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea.

“From such a standpoint, this is a grave situation concerning national security,” Park Hyung-joon told a radio interview. [Yonhap]

Coming from the Unification Minister, whose traditional role has consisted of obsequious kowtowing toward North Korea, those comments are even more meaningful.

The Joongang Ilbo reports that the Obama Administration and its semi-autonomous subsidiary, the U.S. State Department, also agree:

The U.S. government has concluded that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in March and has begun discussing possible measures to be taken in response, according to a source here.

Another diplomatic source said the Obama administration is also preparing a joint U.S.-South Korean statement condemning the North Korean action and strengthening the two countries’ military alliance. The statement, the source added, would be issued after the findings of the Cheonan probe are announced sometime next week.

“About a dozen officials handling East Asia and the Korean Peninsula at the State Department, the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency held a closed-door meeting [Monday, Washington time] to talk about responses to the Cheonan sinking for the first time,” the source said. “They discussed measures to take in case North Korea attacked the ship, and they didn’t bring up any other possibility [that some other cause may have been responsible].

What the Administration is prepared to do about this isn’t nearly as clear. The only specific response mentioned, a new round of military exercises, certainly would not be a complete response, and hopefully isn’t meant to be. The Mainichi Shimbun adds that the U.S. and South Korean plan to hold more high-level military and diplomatic meetings between now and July.

Needless to say, the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy is about to face its most important test so far. North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009 was more effective than its 2006 test, but the probably premeditated sinking of a South Korean warship is an entirely level of provocation, and quite possibly the first in a series that’s intended to provoke a limited conflict. How President Obama responds now could be very important to the lives of plenty of people on both sides of the DMZ. And while a direct military response is probably unwise, Obama has to choose options that are at once restrained, principled, and which will genuinely deter Kim Jong Il’s next bad decisions.

One important (but also incomplete) response would be to re-add North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Via the Chosun Ilbo, it appears that a bill to do just that is now percolating among the Republicans in Congress. It’s interesting that the South Korean embassy doesn’t seem opposed. One wonders whether John Kerry will block this attempt to re-list North Korea, just as he blocked the last one, by a very close vote. Certainly Kerry would not do this against the will of the White House. We’ll soon have a much better idea of who is running this administration’s North Korea policy. But one wonders what negotiating atmosphere Kerry would be afraid of spoiling today, when even the State Department has said that it can’t be business as usual if North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Some would tell you that re-listing is mostly a symbolic gesture, but they’re wrong. First, a terror-sponsor listing effectively blocks North Korea’s access to international loans, something we’d likely do anyway in times like these, but this measure would also send an important signal of political risk and bad creditworthiness to other potential lenders and investors. Second, it’s important for reasons of principle — since it was de-listed, North Korea has been caught arming terrorists at least twice, has attempted to assassinate a dissident in exile, and has repeatedly used its official state media to terrorize the populations of other states. These actions meet the statutory definition of international terrorism, and we can’t deter state-sponsored terrorism if it doesn’t have consequences. Third, the de-listing was originally a quid-pro-quo for nuclear disarmament, a condition that North Korea decisively repudiated when it tested a nuclear weapon in May 2009.

While re-listing itself would not be symbolic, a congressional resolution would be. The legal procedure for listing a state as a sponsor of terrorism leaves that decision entirely within the discretion of the Secretary of State and the President. But then, this is an election year, and Obama is already under attack for having a weak North Korea policy:

Ironically, Obama’s negotiating posture with the North is, so far at least, somewhat less objectionable than that of the Bush administration’s last years. Bush’s negotiators were, in effect, negotiating with themselves, making unforced concessions to create the illusion of diplomatic progress, while North Korea did little or nothing.

By contrast, the Obama team, at least optically, has seemed more prepared to have China make the grease payments necessary to persuade Kim’s regime to resume the long-stalled six-party talks.

But beneath the optics is a disturbing reality. Obama’s underlying strategy remains fixed in the belief that once everyone returns to the bargaining table, progress on denuclearizing North Korea is still possible. It is a major article of faith, closely linked to Obama’s view that negotiations with Iran might actually divert the mullahs from their determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. [John Bolton, N.Y. Daily News]

Bolton is one of the few conservatives who carries over enough consistency from the Bush Administration to be a credible critic of Obama, who has at least recognized the power of financial constriction to affect North Korea (if not its behavior). Speaking of sanctions, I also liked this quote from the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner on this:

What is Obama’s Plan B? The Obama administration’s two-track policy of pressure and negotiations is an improvement over earlier approaches that veered to either extreme. However, “strategic patience” is insufficient as a long-term strategy. Simply containing North Korea in a box is problematic for several reasons. First, it allows Pyongyang to expand and refine its nuclear and missile delivery capabilities. This not only further undermines the security of the U.S. and its allies but also sends a dangerous signal of de facto acceptance to other nuclear aspirants. Members of Congress, the media, and think tanks who excoriated the Bush administration’s policy of “benign neglect” are now hypocritically silent against Obama’s similar strategy. [Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation]

Read that one in its entirety.

If no sane person still thinks that North Korea can be talked out of its nukes — and that’s only a very slight exaggeration in this town — then the question becomes what the point of sanctions really is. Is it to get North Korea back to the six-party talks to stall us for a few more years while it keeps proliferating nukes to Syria, Iran, Burma, and God-knows-who-else?

As Klingner argues persuasively, sanctions, like talks, are not an end in themselves. Both need to be part of a more comprehensive policy with a concrete goal. To me, the policy ought to be to weaken the regime’s grip on its population by damaging its capacity to oppress. The Great Confiscation and the backlash it created are good illustrations of how this works in practice. So for the moment, Obama’s sanctions happen to advance us toward the same goal I envision, even if it’s probably not the same goal that Obama’s people envision. To me, the concrete goal is a regime so subverted, destabilized, weakened, and lacking in the means to maintain order and control that China (along with a critical mass of the North Korean military) has a fundamental change of attitude and decides that perpetuating Kim Jong Il’s misrule impedes, rather than advances, the objective of stability in North Korea. Maybe then, China will have an incentive to join in forcing North Korea into a negotiated and controlled abdication. That’s not in the cards now, and it won’t be until the North Korean people acquire the means to organize against the state.

1 Comment

  1. talks […] are not an end in themselves.

    If you’re China, they are.

    A nuclear-armed North Korea is in China’s interest. China has three main goals in Northeast Asia: stability and economic development, reunification with Taiwan, and preventing separatism. By allowing North Korea to possess nuclear arms, they satisfy all of these goals. On the one hand, they feel a nuclear-armed North Korea is less likely to be invaded and thus preserves the status quo, allowing Chinese companies time to build their presence in the North. On the other hand, a friendly KJI-ruled North Korea diverts US military and attention from the Taiwan Straits and with the North Korean buffer between South Korean/American troops and Manchuria, China is free to move its military resources away from that region. In the event of a war with Taiwan, a nuclear-armed North Korea could pin down US forces in the Korean peninsula and prevent them from devoting their full attention to protecting Taiwan. Finally, by keeping Pyongyang on life support, they minimize the risk of revanchist tendencies in Yanbian area and the risk that the Joseon-jok will flee south.

    As you [Joshua] have said multiple times, we don’t just have a North Korea problem. We have a China problem. Both China and North Korea have every incentive to see the six-party talks continue indefinitely. Ignoring China all together is not possible, but the SPT are no longer a viable option for solving security issues on the Korean Peninsula, and neither is the blank-check engagement of the Sunshine Policy era. I think the US, Japan, South Korea, and their allies must be willing to act unilaterally to push for containment and subversion.

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