Of course, a better North Korea policy means more than sanctions

Professor Haggard is skeptical that a “sanctions only approach” toward North Korea could work, which compels me to expand on why I agree, and on what a better approach would look like.

It should go without saying that no act of Congress can ever be more than part of a complete foreign policy, something that, by constitutional design, only the executive branch can wield. Certainly the imposition and enforcement of tough sanctions are at the heart of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, H.R. 1771, because tough sanctions enforcement is a necessary (and presently, a missing) element of a better policy, and because sanctions are also an area where Congress can express its will. H.R. 1771 sets strict conditions for relaxing sanctions to avoid repeating President Bush’s errors of 2007, but those conditions (see sections 401 and 402) clearly contemplate using sanctions as leverage for better, more effective diplomacy and engagement — assuming that’s still possible.

In an acknowledgement that a better policy has more dimensions than sanctions alone, H.R. 1771 also calls for more efforts to fund the free flow of information into North Korea (section 301), and the publication of reports on North Korea’s crimes against humanity (section 302). These, too, are areas where our government has lagged. There is much speculative debate about whether engagement with the regime is realistic at all; certainly, there is little evidence that it has transformed this regime materially, or that its effects are remotely comparable to the transformational effects of markets and smuggling. Nevertheless, H.R. 1771 tests the regime’s trustworthiness and readiness for good-faith negotiations by demanding the cessation of its counterfeiting and the release of its abductees, by demanding the free and fair delivery of food aid, and by demanding material improvements in the conditions in its prison camps.

The regime’s stonewalling on all of these outrages — despite decades of engagement and appeasement — illustrates the flaw of strategies based on obedient supplications and obsequious tribute. Outsiders have focused most of their efforts to “engage” North Korea on an oligarchy whose physical survival depends on the enforcement of the status quo, while overlooking the common people who sincerely seek change that might give them a chance at lives worth living. Wouldn’t a smarter engagement strategy emphasize them instead?

In addition to sanctioning, defunding, and degrading the security forces that are closing North Korea’s borders and suppressing change, a smarter engagement strategy would increase our support for things that really might change North Korea in very real and tangible ways — broadcasting, an independent cellular network, the smuggling of food and information, remittances, quasi-legal private agriculture, clandestine cross-border banking, and whatever else would catalyze the growth of markets that provide food, goods, and information to those who are hungriest for them. Eventually, engaging the North Korean people would create the conditions for the rise of independent trade networks, unions, churches, and political organizations. Certainly, this will require more creativity than the conventional approaches that have failed so consistently. By now, you realize that this isn’t an argument against engagement. It’s an argument that we’ve been engaging the wrong people.

At the same time, every member of the Security Council has agreed, in principle, that sanctions against the regime are a necessary element of a policy designed to alter its behavior (or failing that, its very nature). That does not mean that a better North Korea policy can be based on sanctions alone. An orchestra can no more play a symphony with brass alone than it can play one without it. A better policy will require our government to devote more intelligence, investigative, law enforcement, and (yes) diplomatic resources to this problem. As with engagement, there is no argument against diplomacy to be found here, only an argument that our diplomacy is out of sequence. The initial focus of our diplomacy should be on building unity and cohesion among allies in enforcing sanctions consistently, and as the U.N. has agreed (see section 202). Unanimity among allies can strengthen our capacity to force China and Russia to enforce those sanctions, too. Only then, when sanctions enforcement is broad and consistent, can diplomacy with North Korea have any hope of success. That means that North Korea’s should be the last government we approach, not the first. Diplomacy with a target like North Korea, in particular, requires enough leverage to persuade it to give up things it would rather keep.

As for whether a deal with North Korea is still possible, I personally espouse what I’ll call strategic ambivalence. Either sanctions — in concert with these other elements of a smarter policy — can coerce policy changes in Pyongyang, or they can hasten the destabilization of the regime. The choice lies with Kim Jong Un (and to a lesser extent, with Xi Jinping and Putin) as to which direction the policy will have to follow. As long as the countries that have agreed to sanction Pyongyang subsidize it instead, and until Pyongyang fears that collapse is a real and imminent danger, Pyongyang will be able to choose the status quo, and therefore, it will.

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