As North Korea completes preparations for its latest ICBM test, the United States, Japan, and South Korea are trying to deter it with state-of-the art, laser-guided words. Success, while unlikely, isn’t completely out of the question; after all, Kim Jong Un seemed to be preparing to conduct a nuke test several months ago, but never went through with it. If Kim Jong Un really did defer a nuke test, I have no idea why, but it probably wasn’t because he wants a fresh start in his relations with Earth.
So far, the public face of U.S. deterrence has been to threaten what has never worked before – to take North Korea to the Security Council. Our diplomats aren’t specifying what measures we’ll take against Kim Jong Un’s regime, but they’re hinting at more sanctions:
A senior security aide to President Barack Obama said Monday the U.S. is concentrating efforts in cooperation with South Korea, China, Russia and Japan to dissuade North Korea from pressing ahead with another rocket launch.
Gary Samore emphasized that if the launch takes place Washington will take “appropriate actions.”
“We’ve made it very clear that we consider this to be a very unfortunate provocative event, which is not going help North Korea nor the people of North Korea,” Samore told Yonhap News Agency. [Yonhap]
Ed Royce calls the missile test a “wake-up call” that the administration’s policy toward North Korea has been ineffective, which is my first cue to link to my list of unused sanctions options and how those options fit into a more effective North Korea policy – one that could force even China to engage in good-faith efforts to disarm North Korea. The Daily NK interviews other experts who also see the need for a more comprehensive sanctions effort:
Cho Bong Hyun, a researcher with the Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) Economic Research Institute told Daily NK, “If we do not cut off North Korea’s lines of credit then sanctions cannot be effective. Therefore, they will try to strengthen economic sanctions. The trade that is currently going normally could be faced with more difficult conditions, and humanitarian assistance could be stopped, too.”
Cho added, “In addition, it looks like a number more individuals and institutions will be added to the UN Security Council sanction list.”
Another anonymous researcher commented, “The best thing would be to apply financial sanctions in order to freeze North Korean funds, as was done with Banco Delta Asia (BDA). The BDA issue created fresh resistance in North Korea; however, freezing North Korean funds can still inflict a huge blow on their money channels.”
Some voices have suggested that the role of the UN North Korea Sanctions Committee should be improved, with disciplinary actions for those who fail to support it.
Baek Seung Joo of Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said, “Currently, sanctions against North Korea have been implemented across multi-faceted areas, but the problem is whether or not the sanctions are being implemented correctly. There need to be measures to warn those countries who are not actively taking part in the sanctions, and more monitoring of those countries which must apply them.” [Daily NK]
These are good ideas; it’s too bad we won’t make use of them. But at least Susan Rice will get a chance not to be our worst U.N. Ambassador since “Kim Jong Bill” Richardson.
I suppose I should explain. The first rule of deterrence is progressive discipline — the principle that each similar misdeed will be met with more (not less) severe punishment. Yet when North Korea launched its first missile of the Obama Administration in 2009, Rice did no better at the Security Council than a weak Presidential Statement. The resolution she obtained after North Korea’s 2009 nuke test, UNSCR 1874, was little more than a warmed-over version of John Bolton’s UNSCR 1718, and was no better enforced (links to both resolutions in the sidebar). When North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan, the best Rice could get was another non-binding Presidential Statement that didn’t even name North Korea. When North Korea later shelled Yeongpyeong Island and killed four civilians, the Security Council did bupkes. Ditto with respect to North Korea’s brazen nuclear proliferation during Rice’s tenure. And when North Korea launched a missile earlier this year, the Administration quickly decided not to seek further Security Council action after China made clear its intent to block it. Rice got eaten by the Chinese every time (sorry).
Depending on your perspective, you might also think that Rice disqualified herself from higher office for responding to a premeditated Al Qaeda attack by scapegoating one man’s exercise of his right to free speech. Rice’s statements weren’t true, but they would be just as objectionable if they were. Non-violent speech is never a defense to the culpability of those who practice violence. It does not explain it, and it does not mitigate it.
Yet with all this having said, I could more easily abide a weakened and timid Susan Rice than the arrogant incompetence of John Kerry. All of which is sad, because off-hand, I can think of several prominent Democrats and members of this administration who would be great for Secretary of State, starting with Samore. Lieberman, you say? No, that would be asking too much.
Update, Dec. 12, 2012: Reuters is reporting that North Korea launched it, and there seems to be a general consensus that the missile reached orbit.
“The satellite has entered the planned orbit,” a North Korean television news reader clad in traditional Korean garb announced, after which the station played patriotic songs with the lyrics “Chosun (Korea) does what it says”.
The rocket was launched just before 10 a.m. (0100 GMT), according to defense officials in South Korea and Japan, and was more successful than a rocket launched in April that flew for less than two minutes.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said that it “deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit”, the first time an independent body has verified North Korean claims.
The North claims that the rocket boosted a weather satellite into orbit.
Foreign observers are suggesting that this will boost Kim Jong Un’s domestic legitimacy inside North Korea, but I’m wary of these counterfactual analyses. It will probably increase North Koreans’ sense of awe of their overlords, and cause them (and us) to grudgingly acknowledge their competence at matters they deem to be state priorities. On the other hand, it could also serve to highlight the state’s comparative failure to feed the people ahead of a cold winter and a hungry spring.
Although the launch has probably helped the political right win election in Japan, my best guess is that a provocation that primarily threatens the United States will be popular among many South Koreans who harbor intense but latent anti-Americanism and pan-Korean nationalism. To this extent this has a significant effect on the South Korean election, it’s more likely to help the political left, which supports appeasing North Korea.
North Korea’s technical success may mean that Americans will start to take North Korea seriously as a threat again. With Richard Lugar now out of the way, John McCain is getting a seat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where for years, Republicans had effectively abstained from the policy debate about North Korea. With Ed Royce and John McCain soon to be the most prominent Republican voices on foreign policy in Congress, maybe we’ll finally have a debate about whether appeasement, payoffs, unenforced U.N. resolutions, overlooking China’s duplicity, and Agreed Framework III are really the best way to deal with this problem. For his part, Royce is saying the right thing — that we ought to scour the world’s moldiest corners for North Korean assets to freeze.
What would be a novel and serious way to respond to this? First, we’d publicly announce that we’re not seeking any new resolutions at the U.N., and follow that with some off-the-record comments that the resolutions themselves are fine — the problem is that China willfully facilitates the violation of those resolutions. Second, we’d make it clear that instead of wasting our energy with the U.N. and its weak (pro-appeasement South Korean) General Secretary, we’ll work with our allies and trading partners to isolate North Korea economically in the same way our Treasury Department did with the Banco Delta Asia sanctions of 2006, only much more comprehensively. Third and most critically, we must use those sanctions to target and freeze the assets of North Korea’s foreign trading partners, including those in China and South Korea.
Given the North Korean regime’s dependency on foreign hard currency, if we pursued and enforced a policy like that, I doubt there would even be a North Korea two years from now. So much the better for all of humanity.