Lesson One: Pyongyang always reneges. Lesson Two: Repeat Lesson One.

If it’s now cliché to write that North Korea might have modeled its domestic policies on Orwell’s 1984, I would like to be the first to coin the cliché that it might have modeled its foreign policy on P.T. Barnum.* North Korea has an acute sense of its interlocutors’ weakness and desperation, and an extraordinary talent for exploiting these moments of desperation to break coalitions, weaken sanctions, and bring in aid by offering its opponents “openings,” concessions, and disarmament deals. None of these deals has resulted in more than brief delays in the progress of its weapons programs, and none has altered its brutal domestic policies at all. Marcus Noland also wrote about this divide-and-rule strategy recently.

Not for the first or last time, the United States re-learned this in 2007, when George W. Bush cut his own disarmament deal with Kim Jong Il in a moment of political desperation. Japan wasn’t a party to that deal, but Pyongyang used it to induce Bush to remove sanctions it had linked to the release of Japanese abductees. Consequently, the deal strained America’s relationship with its most important Asian ally, Japan. Yes, Bush’s deal required the North Koreans to talk to Japan — bilaterally — about settling “unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern.” The State Department wanted Tokyo to read this is as a reference to the abduction issue, but Pyongyang could just as well have read it as a reference to reparations. Japan has far less influence in Washington than South Korea, whose government was then led by arch-appeaser Roh Moo Hyun. There was little Tokyo could do to stop the deal.

This deal still haunts us today. In 2013, while Park Geun-Hye was refusing to budge on North Korea’s shut-down of Kaesong, Japan cut its own separate deal with the North Koreans to relax (and eventually, lift) bilateral sanctions in exchange for an accounting for Japanese abductees. The White House was none too pleased; after all, those sanctions are mandated by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and a low-overhead regime like Pyongyang only needs to break one bar of its (economic) cage to slip out of it, and avoid the pressure that might otherwise disarm it.

But today, Japan has re-learned — for a while — the lesson that everyone who deals with North Korea eventually learns: North Korea always reneges. (If there is a second lesson, it’s that there are no exceptions to the first lesson. The third lesson is that no one ever learns lessons one or two for long.) Two years later, Tokyo has finally lost patience with Pyongyang. The 2013 deal is over.

Japan launched a major push at the United Nations on Tuesday, May 5, to rally support for efforts to finally resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea 4 decades ago.

Japan’s minister responsible for the abductions issue, Eriko Yamatani, said she is seeking “specific actions” from countries to turn up the pressure on North Korea and seek information on the fate of the abductees.

“It is not Japan alone that is suffering from this problem,” the minister told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

“It is an international problem and there has to be solidarity and collaboration within the international community so that we can finally resolve the abduction problem and the human rights problem in North Korea.” [AFP]

More on that conference at this link. The issue is important to the Japanese government, but it’s far from clear how much influence Japan really has.

“All Japanese citizens feel as though their own family members have been abducted,” said Yamatani, who was appointed as minister responsible for the issue last year.

“They are all in deep anger and feeling this sadness over the lack of progress.”

Yamatani said she is still hopeful that North Korea will produce “a sincere report as soon as possible.”

Barring that, the United Nations should step in to hold Pyongyang to account and governments should consider imposing sanctions on North Korea, the minister said.

Washington’s envoy on North Korea, Robert King, told the gathering that sanctions had “limited impact” on the Pyongyang regime because it has “very few connections with other countries other than China.”

This is the nonsense I thoroughly debunked in this analysis of the sanctions, sanctions that King probably hasn’t read and certainly doesn’t understand. The most obvious response to it is that the administration could easily re-impose the sanctions the Bush Administration lifted in 2008, starting by re-designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism. It could proceed to a campaign of financial diplomacy to pressure banks in China and Europe to block North Korea’s assets, something U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 would support. The administration says it can’t do those things, but the reality is that it doesn’t choose to do them, because those things would conflict with its own separate dealings with Pyongyang.

When history repeats itself this many times, tragedy and farce cease to be mutually exclusive. Pyongyang now sees that it faces two lame duck administrations in Washington and Seoul. Both share low poll numbers, external pressure from inveterate appeasers in their foreign policy establishments, and the absence of any coherent vision for solving the North Korean problem at its source. Seoul and Washington are now starting “exploratory” talks with Pyongyang, which sounds like a word that no high school girl should ever believe. That means that once again, Japanese abductees and their families will continue to be the victims of Pyongyang’s terrorism, and its clever game of divide-and-rule.

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* Yes, I know the quote is apocryphal, at least as attributed to Barnum.


  1. Why in the name of God’s green Earth can policymakers not understand that the North Korean government is operating on a fundamentally different code of conduct and statecraft than the rest of the world?

    “Maybe if we put Kim in the corner and make him think about what he’s done he’ll play nice with the other countries” hasn’t worked and won’t ever work because Kim doesn’t want to play nice with the rest of the world. If a peon like me can see that, why can’t anyone well above my pay grade see it?


  2. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that this isn’t the result of stupidity, but of mendacity.

    It may be that there’s a small but influential number of policymakers who aren’t unsympathetic when it comes to the North Korean regime. This would be unsurprising, as sympathy for this type of government is all too common; but stupidity only goes so far in explaining the generalized incompetence in dealing with the North Korean regime.

    Either that or we’re all saps. That’s also possible.


  3. To commiserate with the humble but thoughtful “peon”, above, may I note that from the days of Woodrow Wilson the core belief of social-democratic rule in the Anglophone countries is that all cultures are equally valid and all men crave peace and quiet and a chicken in the pot. Ramsay MacDonald thought that the force of world opinion would restrain any would-be breaker of world peace. Lyndon Johnson said referring to any possible enemy “Come, let us reason together.” So to the present day. From Wilson’s time the fundamental premise has been that men are inherently good. But followers of Christ know that men are inherently sinners; that is why He came among us! And the Founding Fathers had administrations with foreign policies based on the assumption of the clashing interests of selfish men.

    In the last century, the one figure who unerringly zeroed in on Hitler, as misunderstood in his time by social-democrats of whatever “party” as Kim Jong Un’s regime is now, was Winston Churchill. He had the advantage in understanding Hitler since the Arthurian fantasy governing his own soul was not so foreign to the Wagnerian fantasy motivating Hitler. The social democrats of all parties in Britain surrendered to outcast Churchill only in extremis. Their counterparts today in the USA are far from recognizing your good sense about the tyrant with the northern part of Korea in his thrall.


  4. Craig,

    I don’t know if they’re necessarily sympathetic with the regime, but maybe they figure the North Korea issue is too complex or could become too uncomfortable if they try to go after the Kim regime, so they throw the same mud against the same wall hoping it finally sticks.