A New Approach to North Korea: Contain, Constrict & Collapse

Sometime in the next few hours, North Korea will launch a prototype for an intercontinental ballistic missile, in flagrant violation of three U.N. Security Council resolutions. The North Koreans announced the launch two weeks after agreeing to a deal to freeze their missile and nuclear programs in exchange for U.S. food aid. It now seems they will follow their missile test with a nuclear test. Traditionally, Chinese obstructionism delays U.N. Security Council action by about three weeks after a North Korean missile test, and North Korea’s next nuke test usually follows that by six to eight weeks. A month later, there will be more U.N. action — this time, maybe even another resolution. The resolution won’t do much, because China will undercut sanctions by funding the regime, and will even let North Korea smuggle missile parts and luxury goods through Chinese ports.  After another six to nine months, the State Department will have convinced the President that the sanctions aren’t working and announce its latest agreement to give North Korea real aid in exchange for fake promises to disarm.  If we’re lucky, the next missile test won’t happen for another two years after that.

Shooting the missile down would be a good first step in breaking that cycle, but I doubt we’ll do that. Instead, the Administration is defending its abortive food-for-freeze deal. Its obvious motive was to buy North Korea out of the headlines until November (they failed), but its diplomats will also say that they needed to test the good faith of the new post-Kim Jong Il leadership (they succeeded). The policy problem, however, is bigger than one deal, or even one administration. If you leave aside tribal affiliations and minor rhetorical differences, all of the last three presidents have pursued the same policy.

A Short History of a Long March to Nowhere

Since at least 1992, our North Korea policy has rested on a dual strategy of conventional military deterrence and negotiated disarmament. Deterrence partially collapsed in 2010, when North Korea got away with sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean village along its most vital sea lane. The only question about negotiated disarmament is which agreed framework killed it. Unbelievably, there are people in Washington who are still arguing about Agreed Framework I, our first aid-for-disarmament deal with North Korea, signed way back in 1994. By 1997, the Clinton Administration suspected that North Korea was cheating by assembling a secret uranium enrichment program, but chose not to press the issue. In 2002, the Bush Administration sent two diplomats to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with evidence that they were cheating, and the North Koreans admitted it. Remarkably, some still argue that Bush should have kept shipping aid anyway, but most of those people were still denying the evidence of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program until very recently. Rather than rehash this tedious debate here, I will refer you to this, but no matter how much you flog it, it does nothing to demilitarize the line between two warring tribes of the Foreign Policy Establishment — those who concluded long ago that North Korea can’t be trusted, and those who seem (to the former group) congenitally incapable of accepting that it can’t be.

By 2007, the North Koreans had already broken one Agreed Framework, so the Bush Administration decided to try the same thing again, expecting different results. In 2007, Bush, Condi Rice, and State Department pitch-man Christopher Hill signed us up for Agreed Framework II. This time, the North Koreans extracted a million tons of heavy fuel oil; they also induced Bush to effectively gut a tough new Security Council resolution just six months after it passed, to lift devastating financial sanctions and use the Federal Reserve to launder proceeds of its counterfeiting, and to let it get away with nuclear proliferation and (roll eyes here) mass murder. When Bush demanded a gesture of verification, the North Koreans gave Hill samples and documents (page 12) that were smeared with HEU (which sounds like verification to me). But of course, to hold Agreed Framework II together until it left Washington, the Bush Administration had to ignore the same HEU program that blew up Agreed Framework I. Hill, under withering criticism for this, ridiculed the idea of “a building somewhere with a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium. (Diplomacy must be a very lonely business, especially for a man who spent most of 2007 and 2008 negotiating with himself in a hotel in Beijing.) In due course, North Korea reneged on Agreed Framework II by refusing to allow verification. This astonished some people, which, in turn, astonishes me, because I predicted it with eerie clairvoyance.

As early as Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing, the Obama Administration saw ample evidence that North Korea had an undisclosed HEU program. Then, one autumn day in 2010, they dressed a mild-mannered nuclear scientist named Sig Hecker in a red paisley smoking jacket and ushered him into the very room that Chris Hill had told us about. Now consider everything else that has happened since 2007 — the discovery that North Korea was building Syria its own reactor, another missile test, another nuke test, the outrageous attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, the Bangkok missile seizure, assassination attempts on Hwang Jang Yop and others, and even another possible case of nuclear proliferation — and ask yourself who in the F.P.E. would have thought any of those events were even thinkable beforehand. Things are only getting worse. Of course, some still cling to the old paradigms, but aside from seeing no better options themselves, they hardly seem to believe their own arguments anymore. They remind me of the dog who waits on the porch weeks after his master has moved away.

The first thing I take from all of this is that we should all stop blaming each other for the fact that North Korea is run by psychopaths. It’s no more Bush’s fault that hawks in his administration, like John Bolton, killed Agreed Framework I with accusations about HEU, than it is Barack Obama’s fault that hawks in his administration, like Hillary Clinton and Gary Samore, killed Bush’s Agreed Framework II with allegations about the very same program. The second thing I take from this is that we should get on with the business of designing a policy for dealing with psychopaths. This policy must do whatever can still be done to stop North Korea from proliferating (any more?) nuclear weapons, materials, and technology without getting us into another Korean war. But without a fundamental change in how North Korea views diplomacy, it can’t be trusted to abide by its commitments without monitoring so extensive that it would be incompatible with the basic character of North Korea’s regime. The real question is whether this fundamental change of view also requires a fundamental change in the regime. I suppose it probably does, but I feel obliged to give North Korea the opportunity to prove otherwise. The third thing I take from this is that China sees itself in a zero-sum competition against the United States. It is not just unhelpful with containing North Korea, it is actively undermining financial sanctions and abetting North Korea’s violation of the same U.N. Security Council resolutions China disingenuously voted for. China will keep enabling the Kim Dynasty until we make it a liability for China’s security and economy. The last thing I take from this is that our diplomatic approach is out of sequence. Diplomacy will be an important part of defanging North Korea, but talking with North Korea shouldn’t be the beginning of the diplomatic process, it should be the last phase, after we’ve secured enough leverage to enforce compliance.

A policy of contain, constrict, and collapse would change that sequence by building leverage to disarm North Korea before we make any more regime-sustaining concessions. It would be nifty if this leverage would get us to Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Disarmament and a North Korea that doesn’t menace its neighbors and its own people, but I don’t pretend that this is likely. Unlike past diplomatic approaches, this one would not allow for the relaxation of pressure as a precondition for talks, and would incrementally increase financial and subversive pressure on the regime for breaking its commitments and failing to meet reasonable deadlines.  The pressure would continue until the regime caves, in one sense of the word or the other. Crucially, a 3-C policy would make the induced collapse of the North Korean regime the express alternative to diplomacy that until now, North Korea and China haven’t taken seriously.

1. Contain

North Korea poses plenty of other threats aside from nukes. Had Agreed Framework I or II succeeded, we might have progressed to dealing with its missiles, long-range artillery, chemical and biological weapons, and its tendency to proliferate them. Unfortunately, we never got that far, so we’re dealing with those threats through the Proliferation Security Initiative, diplomacy with third countries, asset freezes, sanctions, and occasional interdictions at airports and seaports. The legal authority for most of our counter-proliferation efforts comes from a trio of U.N. Security Council resolutions — 1695 and 1718, for which we have John Bolton to thank, and UNSCR 1874, whose operative provisions mostly cross-reference 1718. It may delight me a little too much to say this, but no diplomat has has done more to slow North Korean proliferation than John Bolton, and the only institutions with a comparable record are the U.S. Navy and the Israeli Air Force. Countervailing this, agreed frameworks and aid have done much to sustain a regime that prioritizes weapons over everything else, and undermined the financial leverage that sanctions are meant to gain. That aid has been substantial: millions of tons of food aid, much of it probably diverted to the military and the political elite; a million tons of fuel oil in 2007; and billions of dollars in unrestricted cash aid from the South Korean government, a government that U.S. taxpayers spend billions of their own dollars to defend each year. There may be such a thing as coherent diplomacy that alternates financial constriction (as punishment) with financial subsidies (as a reward), but not one that offers both simultaneously. This isn’t a policy; it’s a diagnosis.

In 2010, the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, for all the excellence with which it is marketed in this city, stood paralyzed when North Korea launched a limited war along South Korea’s most vital sea lane. What does that alliance still deter? Probably a full-scale invasion or a nuclear strike, but little else. It is obviously urgent to our South Korean allies that we restore enough deterrence to protect its people, but most Americans would not say that’s worth involving ourselves in a ground war in Korea. Some of the Americans who would agree most strongly are the soldiers who serve, or served, in South Korea. Maybe a geopolitical debate is no place to say that many South Koreans seemed ungrateful for what we contributed to their security and prosperity, but one of the reasons America was paralyzed when North Korea attacked was the presence of our soldiers within North Korean artillery range. If keeping ground forces in Korea deters us more than it deters the North Koreans, why not shift to using naval and air power to deter a large-scale North Korean attack, and toward interdicting North Korean proliferation?

Of course, there is only so much containment can do, and only for so long. Just as North Korea wriggled free of conventional containment, it will find ways to proliferate. It isn’t even hard when China, with chutzpah almost as great as North Korea’s, more-or-less openly abets North Korea’s flagrant violations of three U.N. resolutions it voted for. That means that containment can only slow the pace of proliferation until North Korea’s clients can reverse engineer their own products.

2. Constrict

Because I think critics have a responsibility to offer better ideas, I’ve laid out specific proposals that are designed to support more effective diplomacy and restore deterrence, or failing that, to rid the world of this regime once and for all. I believe, despite my skepticism, that it’s worth trying to coerce North Korea into a negotiated disarmament through financial and diplomatic constriction. Failing this, I would advocate deliberate efforts to catalyze internal opposition, destabilize the regime, and achieve eventual reunification with the South under a representative government. The preferred means of coercion is to focus so much financial pressure on the regime that we would see what we saw by late 2006 — a new North Korean interest in negotiations. Sure, that interest was probably disingenuous and intended only to get that pressure lifted, but the pressure was substantial:

We think we know why North Korea is softening, or at least appears to be. We’ve been working on an in-depth profile of the North Korean economy, and it is in serious trouble. The North Korean economy had been in weak but steady recovery since 1999, growing about 15 percent over the next six years despite its isolation and increasing backwardness. Then came a new setback. Last year the national income contracted by 1.1 percent, according to the South Korean government. Our research suggests the main reason for the downturn was that U.S.-led sanctions hit harder than most people realize. Now more than ever, North Korea needs the financial benefits of a nuclear deal to survive.

The sanctions struck a feeble economy from many sides. The United States led actions to shut down North Korea’s missile trade, and put the squeeze on its illicit smuggling and counterfeiting revenue. The black-market rate on North Korea’s currency plummeted after a small bank in Macau, central to the North’s money-laundering activities, was shut down. Japan effectively cut off a heavy flow of remittances to Pyongyang from North Koreans in Japan. We estimate that together with legal arms sales, revenue from contraband–including the production and trafficking of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, smuggling of liquor and endangered-species parts, to name a few–may have accounted for as much as half of North Korea’s exports in the late 1990s but has fallen to roughly 15 percent in recent years due to sanctions. In the meantime, aid now finances 40 percent of imports. There are benefits to playing nice in the nuclear talks–or pretending to. [Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, Newsweek, Sept. 15, 2007, archived here]

Treasury’s September 2005 anti-money laundering measures against Banco Delta Asia cut off its access to the international banking system and blocked one of the North Korean regime’s most important conduits for recouping the profits from its illegal activities and weapons sales abroad. Overnight, North Korean front companies’ income stream was dammed. They sought new banks elsewhere, but Treasury followed them. Senior Treasury officials, including Undersecretary Stuart Levey, visited banks in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, reminding them of the risks of doing business with North Korea, and stating publicly that it was “almost impossible to distinguish between the North’s legitimate and illegitimate dealings.” As a result, Levey said, “some two dozen financial institutions across the globe had voluntarily cut back or terminated their business with North Korea.” Although North Korea is exceptionally opaque, a few other key signs suggest how much impact Treasury’s actions had. The leader of North Korea’s small clique of European investors conceded that “[t]he impact [was] severe.” The regime was forced to sell off some of its gold reserves on the London and Bangkok markets. In January 2006, according to published reports, Kim Jong Il told Hu Jintao that he feared that the sanctions would cause the collapse of his regime.

This was enough to coerce North Korea into significant concessions, at least on paper. To be fair, Noland has expressed skepticism that financial pressure alone can coerce North Korea into disarming, and I think his doubts are well founded. But my proposals go far beyond putting pressure on a few isolated banks. If Treasury would declare the entire North Korean government to be an entity of primary money laundering concern under 31 U.S.C. § 5318A, just as it has done previously to the governments of Nauru and the Ukraine, the effects on North Korea would be far greater than those we saw in 2006, and far greater than those we see in the case of Iran today. I also advocate a more aggressive use of Executive Orders 13,382 and 13,551 — the former signed by Bush at Bolton’s urging, the latter signed recently by President Obama — to freeze the assets of Chinese entities that do business with North Korea. Finally, North Korea’s drug dealing and counterfeiting could be a basis for criminal prosecutions that could include asset forfeiture counts. The objective of these measures would be to scare Chinese banks and South Korean companies away from doing business with North Korea, sustaining the regime, and undermining international sanctions. Yes, this would cause upset among certain quarters in China and South Korea that aren’t nearly as upset about the proliferation threat North Korea poses to the United States. There would be ways to mollify South Korea, which is, after all, simultaneously one of the world’s wealthiest nations and a U.S. military dependent. China’s purported economic leverage over the United States is often exaggerated, but its economy is now showing alarming signs of fragility. China might increase its trade surplus in boorish nationalistic hostility, but it would not sacrifice its economic relationship with the United States to maintain one with North Korea.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue of diplomatic coercion, international security, or law enforcement. If there were strong moral arguments for isolating South Africa economically, there is a far stronger moral case for a similar campaign against North Korea. I can’t see a reason to distinguish those cases in North Korea’s favor that doesn’t seem profoundly hypocritical. Would international isolation be enough to achieve real and lasting disarmament or end North Korea’s crimes against humanity? Because it’s never been tried in a sustained and comprehensive way, and because we’ve never made financial constriction the consequence of failing to meet benchmarks and deadlines, I don’t know. I do think, however, that we’re obliged to try. Some will argue that sanctions will hurt the people of North Korea, but the funding sources I propose to attack here were never used to feed or house the people of North Korea; they were squandered on weapons programs, yachts, and other banned luxury goods that North Korea continues to buy through China. We should always be open to providing food aid to the North Korean people who really need it, to the extent that we can monitor the distribution of that aid effectively. In fact, allowing effective monitoring of U.S. food aid would be an effective, and uncharacteristically compassionate, way for North Korea to show a new sincerity about transparency.

3. Collapse

Deterring North Korea means threatening it with something whose consequences scare it (and its Chinese sponsors) more than they scare us. The threat of war obviously doesn’t scare North Korea as much as we used to think it did, but it scares me. The F.P.E. has a banal cliche for it: “All options are on the table.” There shouldn’t be anything banal about it in the context of a place as congested with civilian life as central Korea. Having served with U.S. Forces Korea for four years and married into the Korean nation, the implications of conventional deterrence are unthinkable to me. By comparison, it seems august to advocate the restoration of deterrence through political subversion rather than heavy ordnance. Subversion has some obvious advantages: it can be tailored to deter smaller provocations, it does not involve the United States as a direct combatant, and at least initially, it would rely exclusively on non-violent methods. Much of what I take pleasure in calling subversion in the context of North Korea is constitutionally protected, if imperfectly, in the world’s happier quarters. North Korea will complain, but shouldn’t expect us to listen, given its long history of political subversion against South Korea. Subversion is a real deterrent that attacks the regime where it knows it is vulnerable. It is also an effective pressure point against China, which fears nothing more than the overthrow of a friendly dictatorship and the outbreak of chaos along its border. If we can raise a credible subversive threat to North Korea, China will have an incentive to shift away from propping the regime up, toward helping us force diplomatic resolutions of the nuclear threat and all the other threats our diplomacy hasn’t touched yet.

Members of the F.P.E. who say they want stability in North Korea usually say this because they’re worried about loose nukes. The concern is obviously important, but it’s misplaced. First, is the risk of loose nukes from an embattled regime really greater than it is with the status quo? Second, North Korea’s main nuclear facilities are concentrated at Yongbyon, a place within the regime’s political core and the last place it would allow to slip out of its grasp. Third, a regime that finds its survival suddenly in doubt isn’t going to flail around making more enemies. Which prospective faction might have an interest in proliferating North Korean nukes, aside from the one that’s proliferating them now? Finally, and even absent foreign subversion, an armed domestic opposition will eventually arise in North Korea anyway, just as it did in totalitarian Libya and Syria. If so, isn’t it better if that opposition is friendly to us than to see it becomes a vehicle for China’s ancient territorial claims, and a source of future conflict? No one has argued more persuasively than Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that economic changes in North Korea are causing social changes, and that those changes will eventually lead to political changes, too. Regimes that can’t bend to those pressures are brittle; they tend to shatter violently. We should be trying to “engage” the North Korean people to pressure the regime and its Chinese sponsors, to shape the direction of a united Korea’s future, to achieve negotiated reunification, and to deter Chinese intervention. Unlike bombing, subversion of this regime might even improve the lives of the North Korean people, although inevitably, plenty of blood will be spilled first. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome for the North Korean people that does not involve much needless waste of life, but at least the waste is finite if the regime ends.

As far as we know, there is no political opposition in North Korea. A little more than year ago, there wasn’t one in Libya or Syria, either. Like the regimes in Libya and Syria, the North Korean regime controls the guns and won’t hesitate to use them. Even so, we’ve all read the recent reports about market protests, anti-regime graffiti, and isolated acts of resistance and concluded that they can’t all be wrong. North Korea polices speech and thought far more comprehensively than even Libya or Syria, but no state can be omniscient. Witness to Transformation and the remarkable data that form its major premise suggest that the people of North Korea are more discontented and less isolated than ever. At some point, dissent overburdens the state’s capacity to police it, and the state must recalibrate its standards to enforce any standards at all. Markets and smugglers are already bringing radios, computers, flash drives, and MP4 players into North Korea, and they could also flood North Korea with cheap cell phones. Unlike Orascom phones, these could be put in the hands of the “wavering” and “hostile” classes in the outer provinces, couldn’t be shut off or monitored by the regime, and could use a signal that would let them call anyone on the entire Korean peninsula, or get news from anywhere on earth. I wouldn’t oppose (and would likely support) the idea of arming an opposition movement should one arise, and I can think of several ways to do that clandestinely. For now, however, we should limit ourselves to propagating dissenting ideas and helping people to organize around them. If dissent spreads widely enough among the population, it will affect the security forces, too. In due course, they will succumb to corruption and divisions, and weapons will be available. This is the part where I expect China and North Korea to start taking diplomacy seriously for a change.

This will be controversial to some, but it shouldn’t be. Wasn’t it proponents of the Sunshine Policy who promised us transformational engagement, even as the regime insisted it would never allow this “imperialist’s old trick” to work? If these proponents were sincere, why should they object if North Koreans use smuggled cell phones to call their business partners in China or their relatives in South Korea, or to form clandestine unions, churches, or political parties? Maybe it will be controversial because another consequence will be the crystallization of resistance from latent dissent, but Sunshine’s proponents would sometimes whisper in the ears of hard-liners that Sunshine would do the same. What they could never tell us is why this regime should continue to exist.


  1. Let me second “j”, above. Stellar work, Mr. Stanton; one of your best (and that is saying a lot). As an American citizen and resident, I necessarily believe in an American foreign policy that rigorously conforms to a clear-eyed assessment of the American national interest. How often that is the exception rather than the rule! Considering the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia, your CCC handsomely meets that priority, and none other that is visible does.

    In apparent contrast, as a sinner but follower of Christ, my priority is the deliverance of my brothers and sisters north of the Imjin from the tyranny and being able to bring the Good News to them. Therefore the DPRK monstrosity may not continue on in any form; not a shred of it. The dissolution of the artillery belts near the DMZ threatening Seoul and the extinction of the weapons programs threatening the world follow in due course.

    The priorities above are literally worlds apart, and yet they have their juncture. In early 1861 the American national interest merely required a continuation of the Union; Abraham Lincoln expressed that very clearly. However, southern zealots for the profound moral evil of slavery could well comprehend that Lincoln’s own “CCC” policy would collapse their system in due course. The shelling of Fort Sumter followed. By the end of 1862, national interest began to become one with moral imperative; by Appomattox they were quite united.

    As Winston Churchill might have said: “KBO, Mr. Stanton!” For our part, we will continue with our prayers. In His time our efforts will bear fruit.


  2. North Korea is like ancient Sparta, a country of slaves governed by a warmaking class. Ideally, it will collapse and disappear. But it won’t.

    Scenario 1. US Forces will withdraw to enable unification, the South will take over the bombs and the north in a struggle with China, and the unified forces of South Korean industry and North Korean military forces (15 divisions of special forces alone) will invade Manchuria and northern China. India will come to the aid of the unified Koreans and interdict Chinese oil shipments, and China will revert to disorganization under threats of nukes on Beijing and the Four Rivers Dam. Unified Korea will join with Chinese Mongolia in a northern consortium to control the rare earth, copper and coal mines, and Japan will give aid and comfort to maintain its industries. Russia’s Far East will burgeon in co-operation with the consortium.

    Scenario 2. Militant northern commandos secretly stash truck-carried nukes in Seoul, Pusan and Taejon, and successively demand withdrawal of US Forces, abolition of ROK Forces, and unification under the Kims. The north takes over the South, and invades China as above.

    Scenario 3. Rason comes on stream next year. Oodles of loot replenishes the personal coffers of the upper cadres, while the lower 15 million continue to starve. There are numerous palace revolutions among the Kim family, but the dynasty survives. Russia and South Korea successfully conspire to divert rare earth production along its Far Eastern railway to Rason, and China dissolves into anarchy. OneFreeKorea is still a blog in 2035.


  3. Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, says we should normalize relations with Pyongyang. He chose to publish his proposal in China Daily, but here it is at Cato.org. The Institute’s slogan is “Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace.” At its “about” page it has this quote: “The Cato Institute is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty in the nation that is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty.” – George F. Will

    Carpenter didn’t explain how President Obama could win re-election after such a policy switch, nor did he guarantee that President Romney wouldn’t reverse it.

    h/t Korean Central News Agency.