The New Conventional Wisdom: We Have No Idea

I don’t recall ever seeing Victor Cha offer a view that was particularly original, imaginative, or likely to end in a successful result, but he is a reliable indicator of Washington conventional wisdom about North Korea, which in turn is heavily influenced by Seoul’s views about the North. And here is the new conventional wisdom: we have no idea what to do now. In Cha’s own words:

North Korean behavior has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.

“You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?” [East-West Center]

For years, the conventional wisdom has been based on mirror-imaged rationalizations of North Korean motives, rationalizations that failed to understand its irrational (to us) pathology. This was needless, of course. The pathology would have been evident to anyone who confronted is capable of doing to other human human beings, and the profound pathological implications of that capability. Our foreign policy establishment, accustomed to dealing with states that respond to ordinary economic and political incentives, assumed the same of North Korea — that it seeks better trade relations, more commerce with the outside world, the exchange of ambassadors, the reduction of tensions, and a better life for its people. The Foreign Policy Industry clung to them throughout the mutual partisan recriminations (yes, a cliche) that blamed everyone but Kim Jong Il for the collapse of two agreed frameworks.

Perhaps President Obama’s election was just the first necessary element of the destruction of these false assumptions. During the last year, I’ve watched them fall, starting with North Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test, and concluding (for everyone but Mike Chinoy and a few others) after North Korea sank the Cheonan. The new consensus is that talks stand no chance of disarming North Korea, and perhaps not even of preserving the peace. The new consensus is that China isn’t a “responsible partner” that will help us restrain Kim Jong Il within the range of what passes for acceptable provocations. And while sanctions have become more attractive as a policy option, there is no “accepted” view of what plausibly attainable objective they are supposed to serve, because the conventional wisdom still sees them as an accessory to diplomacy. Simply stated, the conventional wisdom is still trying to recover from the destruction of its fundamental assumptions. It has no idea what to do next.

The first step toward a better policy is to acknowledge that the last one didn’t work, and won’t work. The second step is just beginning.


  1. Institute a maritime cordon sanitaire.

    Not a blockade, but simply the boarding and physical inspection on the High Seas of all vessels bound for or destined from North Korean ports, in fulfillment of the United Nations’ existing embargoes. It would infuriate the DPRK — and its Chinese masters: it would allow us to identify more trading partners, even if the goods were legitimate — and it would allow us to confiscate vessels and goods if they were contraband. It could be followed by an aeronautical embargo too.

    It requires no further UN approval.

    A naval cordon would also be a proper and appropriate response to the Cheonan problem.

  2. There is a point to be made here about uniqueness. Are we, the United States, the only country whose leadership is at a loss for dealing with the North Koreans? I think you give the Chinese Communist Party too much credit: are they really so omniscient, so totally lips-and-teeth with the DPRK that they can just deploy their North Korean puppets to undercut American influence in northeast Asia however they choose? The idea that China can “help us restrain Kim Jong Il within the range of what passes for acceptable provocations” is predicated on the idea that China itself _has realistic options_ for dealing with these people.

    I think if you read the Chinese press more carefully (which is admittedly very difficult to do when even NYT articles which allegedly deal with China’s response to US-ROK military exercises don’t show evidence of the most cursory examination of basic Chinese publications, and China itself is so bad at explaining itself in English), you’d find that China is on a tightrope with the DPRK, and so their behavior has been changing in the last few years. Sometimes they wash dirt all over the DPRK face in public (passing along critical stories from the same sources that form the empirical basis of this blog, in fact), sometimes they hammer home the “friendship forged in blood” (because it gives them some space to breathe, and because some guys in the PLA and Standing Committee probably believe it, and because Comrade Stalin’s administrative DNA hasn’t been completely extinguished) and sometimes they act independently and just call North Korea what it is: a little country which, although occasionally useful, is a major drain on China’s energies and one which should not dictate the direction of China’s entire foreign policy.

    The Chinese response to the upcoming naval drills has been a case in point: they are no longer justifying their opposition to the exercises on the justification that it will provoke the DPRK into withdrawing from non-existent talks, they’re now just saying straight out that the US is using North Korea as a pretext to shove power down the throat (literally, when they thought the [now oil-polluted] Yellow Sea was in danger of being violated) of the PRC.

    Think about what happens to China if it went along with your suggestions of ever-heavier sanctions, cutting off trade with North Korea, opening up of the northeast to South Korean/UN refugee transit stations to Mongolia, and presumably, abrogation of the 1961 mutual defense treaty (and you’re the legal scholar here; presumably the PRC could just nullify the treaty?). With that series of steps, what does China get in return? Mild economic slowdown in the northeast, a few hundred thousand refugees in the same region, repudiation of sixty years of CCP policy towards North Korea (which is already happening, contrary to your reading of things), and a now-hostile nuclear neighbor along a 1400 km frontier, in all probability. In return, what do they get? Suspicions from South Korea about their motives? Complements from the State Department and a couple of days of mild praise on this blog? Really, what is the path forward for the PRC? It’s fine to call them Chi-Coms or whatever, that is all very humorous, but have you thought at all about laying out a realistic model for how China would go forward with any of these things which you suggest? Some long-term, moderate line that embraces a gradual cultivation of human rights consciousness among Chinese (rather than South Korean) NGOs for North Korean refugees and the maturation of annoyance (and finally outright opposition) among Chinese citizens to North Korea’s behavior is presumably a non-starter for discussion on this blog. Or, since the CCP is presumably an iron-fisted dictatorship which will be absorbing the smoking remains of whatever is left north of the 38th parallel when the Kim family reign is finished, can the Party just impose whatever policy it wants toward North Korea and justify it later?

    No reply expected, just a few contrary thoughts from a regular OFK reader.

  3. Adam, I agree that China has little incentive to see the status quo change. I don’t think there is any way to get China to change its attitude given—as you explained—the payoff would be so small and the potential downside—from the Chinese perspective—too large. I I didn’t know any better, the mantra “blame China” is merely code used by foreign policy circles for “we’re too indolent/craven/apathetic/all of the above to do anything about the problem, so we’ll put the blame on someone else.” (Not that I can blame them too much; strategically, North Korea is peripheral to the US’s main interests in Eurasia).

    If I were president, my first order of business would be to unilaterally impose sanctions on North Korea, and impose sanctions on any foreign companies that do business with North Korea. This is possibly the only measure—carrot or stick—which in the past has had any tangible impact on North Korean behavior (I’m talking about the BDA model here). There are some downsides to this as well, especially if the sanctions start to target Chinese banks and other state-run assets (which inevitably they will). This could result in the Chinese government putting tit-for-tat pressure/sanctions on American companies.

    Ok, I’m beginning to see where Victor Cha is coming from.

  4. As was pointed out by Joshua and Kushibo the North Korean behavior has long been predictable which just shows what a bubble the US foreign policy establishment must live in.

    Excellent comment by Adam and I think it is unlikely to get any Chinese cooperation that will lead to the end of the Kim regime. That is why I think targeting the North Korean people from within with the balloon launches, subversive media, etc. is so important. If the cult of Kim is destroyed in the minds of the North Korean people along with implementing Joshua’s Plan B, change could happen with in North Korea whether the Chinese government likes it or not.

  5. I am astounded that someone as smart as Mr. Stanton continues to fawn over Obama’s foreign policy as though it were deliberate or executed by strategic design. You also seem invested in blaming Bush for Sunshine Policy and admiring Obama/Clinton for Lee Myung Bak’s spine and refusal to kow-tow to Nork intimidation.

    Perhaps President Obama’s election was just the first necessary element of the destruction of these false assumptions.

    Yes, dispatching President Clinton with hat-in-hand to beg KJI for forgiveness is most definitely breaking from the tired old Bush/Rice paradigm. And sinking another $2 trillion into debt owned by the PRC – hmmm, certainly a departure from any policy of past administrations. All that’s left now is for Barack Obama to aplogize for the 1950-1953 Korean War.

    What’s most disgusting to me is that while the PRC has started a capitalist fire it cannot extinguish, Obama is attempting to turn the US into a socialist democracy.

    [KCJ, I’m not sure what fawning you’re seeing. I suspect you’re missing my point, so let me try again to explain it. My point isn’t that Obama was a stealth neocon or a foreign policy visionary disguised as a well-marketed, smooth-talking, inexperienced, and otherwise ordinary politician. In fact, I think President Obama is a well-marketed, smooth-talking, inexperienced, and otherwise ordinary politician, neither the last great hope of mankind or the crypto-Trotskyite that the hard right portrays him to be. I suspect most of his Korea policy thinking is delegated to people who came into office wanting a softer line. The mainstream of the Korea policy establishment — people like Jack Pritchard, Don Oberdorfer, and pretty much the whole State Department — really thought that Bush’s “hard line” policy was largely responsible for our differences with North Korea, and that “talking to our enemies” and unconditional “engagement” would eventually disarm or contain North Korea as a threat. They were like dogs chasing a fire truck. Obama’s election was their taste of its back bumper. And sometimes, that’s the only way you get the dog to stop chasing the fire truck.

    Anyway, I’m guessing you may have missed this link. Read that and tell me if you still think I’m fawning. One charge that I don’t think anyone can make stick against me is that I’ve ultimately let any president off lightly for his stupid and short-sighted Korea policies, though I do now regret the years until 2005 when I believed too much in what President Bush said and was insufficiently skeptical of how little he actually did. Perhaps that was my optimistic side, or my extreme distaste for John Kerry. But there are days when I’m tempted to just delete the first 18 months of my archives, because I read it now, and can’t help thinking how much of it is just crap. – Joshua]

  6. To sally to my academic advisor’s defence during my MSFS days at Georgetown, I found my discussions with Cha regarding North Korea food for thought (especially his insights regarding the US-ROK-Japan triangle, Alignment Despite Antagonism, the struggles of which no one had really commented upon) and find your language somewhat bombastic – ’tis OFK, not KCNA, no?

    To echo Adam’s comments, I think you’re treading on the same assumption that the “foreign policy establishment” you dearly love: American exceptionalism. ‘Tis not only Washington that believes that it’s stuck in a curious quandary regarding the folks out in Pyongyang; China, Japan, and even the South Koreans are (although the South Koreans generally simply act on purely ideological lines). However, this situation hardly can be solved by Washington, or even the United States alone. Without a consensus solution between the major players involved, Washington can talk, and think, all it wants, but it simply ain’t gonna happen. For instance, I know for a fact that the folks at State know that the Chinese are very worried about an imploding North Korea (something Beijing has tried to hammer home for a decade now) – however, the question is, what has the US, the ROK, and the Japanese done to assuage those fears? What happens when an agreement isn’t in place with the PRC, North Korea implodes, and the newest version of OPLAN 5029 (or whatever you like to call it) is implemented? Are the Chinese simply to sit by and twiddle their thumbs? Which they are not, if recent reports are to be believed of the North Koreans licensing concessions to the Chinese… like the Chinese did to the colonialists back in the 19th century?

    Of course, there may be a solution to North Korea without the Chinese. But exclude Beijing at your own peril.

  7. Sometimes they wash dirt all over the DPRK face in public

    None of the Chinese media stories critical of North Korea that I’ve read were harsh by global standards. It’s only that such criticism is so rare and North Korean government officials are so sensitive that a public commentary from a Chinese professor advising the DPRK to return to the talks or institute economic reforms might feel like having dirt flung in one’s face to the North Koreans.

    I would be very curious to see some links to Chinese media stories that illustrate your comment.

  8. Mr. Stanton:
    Thanks for the additional text in clarifying your position – I sincerely appreciate that. I am neither a diplomat nor a scholar – you know what I do for a living. Like many others, I was preoccupied with the CENTCOM AOR in the years between 2001-2005 when actions in Korea seemed remote and distracting. That can never excuse wrong-headed policy or diplomacy that emerged from the Bush WH or any WH. I do insist that neither Bush nor Obama get too much credit/blame for what the administrations in Seoul and Pyongyang did/do.

    As the years unfold and the current trajectory in economics, diplomacy and security take shape, I do see the Korean conflict as a proxy for relations between China and the US which are becoming increasingly tense. Again, what disturbs me about the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is their bent on socialism at a time when China is rapidly becoming more capitalist and democratic. I guess you can lump me in with the hard right (I am an avid disiple of Mark Levin) because I do not see much connection with historical American tradition in this president and his lack of CEO experience is a strategic hazard for our country, especially when dealing with shrewd Asian powers on the rise.

    Thanks again for the time you took to break it down for me.

  9. China is rapidly becoming more capitalist and democratic

    Do forgive the brief tangential rant. I am by no means an expert on China, but I take issue with the idea that capitalism is fixing China.

    The effect of economic growth has been significant and transformative in many ways and certainly not all of its effects have been negative, but one thing it has not produced, and is not obliged to produce, is democracy.

    I’m of the view that going to bed with capitalism was a necessary step for the CCP to maintain its control over that civil society as it emerged, and it has facilitated the development of new and more complex ways to do so. It was necessary and successful in transforming a modern, 20th-Century totalitarian regime into a post-modern authoritarian regime, complete with all the panoptical trimmings where necessary, and for the most part, business has been happy to play ball.

    To be sure, economic liberalisation has transformed many aspects of Chinese society and, among other things, has produced a well-educated, innovative and entrepreneurial generation in its wealthier areas which, unfortunately — it seems to me — is characterised much more by materialism combined with a lack of interest in politics, or even enthusiasm for the current system and indeed the Party (membership of which can be seen as an important criteria for employability and a good way of making connections) than a desire for social change or democratic cosmopolitanism.

    Of course it must be acknowledged that the latter does exist among said generation — and again, I’m no expert, but perhaps economic liberalisation was a variable in the creation thereof — and that civil society in China is much more active than it used to be; indeed I am lucky to count inspiring individuals such as these among my colleagues. But let’s not make any mistake about it, human rights defenders in China are hunted, harassed, threatened, beaten, arrested, jailed, ill-treated, disappeared and tortured on a week-in, week-out basis. Their oppression is systematic and widespread, and there’s nothing democratic whatsoever about it. And as I said before, the business community both foreign and domestic has all too often been complicit at best and, at worst, an active participant therein. It is to their great credit that they continue their struggle in the face of such repression and if anyone or anything is going to bring democracy to China, it is them. Not mining enterprises, ISPs, department stores, or coffee shops.

  10. To be sure, economic liberalisation has transformed many aspects of Chinese society and, among other things, has produced a well-educated, innovative and entrepreneurial generation in its wealthier areas which, unfortunately — it seems to me — is characterised much more by materialism combined with a lack of interest in politics, or even enthusiasm for the current system and indeed the Party (membership of which can be seen as an important criteria for employability and a good way of making connections) than a desire for social change or democratic cosmopolitanism.

    I would make that statement more complete by adding that Chinese citizens are severely contrained from seeking social change by laws restricting organized activity. Do-gooders risk running afoul of the authorities.

  11. For sure. From the very outset, for example, any NGO which wants to register as a non-profit organisation has to have a government-backed agency as its caretaker…and as a consequence, funnily enough, most NGOs have to register as businesses and pay taxes.

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