Aside from the vanishingly small chance of Agreed Framework III, the foundation of our North Korea policy, as set forth in a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, is multilateral economic pressure. That means that all hope of success rests on building multilateral unity before we negotiate with Pyongyang. Every time Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington is taken in by Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule tactics, there is a piecemeal relaxation of pressure by one or two of them, at the expense of one or two others. Mistrust grows among three governments that ought to be coordinating at every step and concentrating their combined strength to achieve all of their shared goals. Fence-sitters in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East see even less risk in violating U.N. sanctions.
Unfortunately, all three governments are vulnerable to the temptation of exceptionalism: for America, because of the fear of proliferation; for South Korea, because of the greed of Kaesong and ethnically induced confusion; and for Japan, because of an understandable interest in bringing its abductees home.
Japan’s 2013 deal with North Korea over its abducted citizens — a deal Tokyo finally left for dead last week — is a perfect case-in-point of how Pyongyang uses those temptations to break up coalitions before they can concentrate economic and financial pressure on it. In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. In the weeks that followed, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2094. In March, the Treasury Department blocked North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank out of the financial system. In early April, partially as a reaction to South Korea’s vote in favor of UNSCR 2094, North Korea withdrew its workers from Kaesong, which began a six-month interruption of a key source of hard currency. In late April, Congress would introduce legislation that may yet impose devastating financial sanctions on Pyongyang. In May, Chinese banks would begin to cut their ties to the FTB, for fear of incurring secondary sanctions. The world seemed to be closing in, and might have.
Of course, Pyongyang knew how the Security Council would respond to its nuclear test before it pushed the plunger. So in early April, just as the pressure began to build, it told Tokyo that it was prepared to “reinvestigate” the cases of dozens of Japanese it had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s (even if all of those abductees are dead, Pyongyang is still effectively using them as hostages). Japan was still smarting from the Bush Administration’s betrayal in 2007, which made it an ideal target for Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule strategy. To the consternation of John Kerry, Tokyo agreed to relax sanctions just as the White House and the Blue House were trying to raise the pressure on Pyongyang.
Something similar happened after December 19, 2014, when President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for the terrorist threats that drove “The Interview” from theaters across America, and aborted a second film project in the creative womb. This may have been the most successful foreign attack on free expression in American history. On January 2nd, President Obama signed Executive Order 13,687, an instrument whose potential was as vast as its designations were negligible. Yet the following week, Japan’s Prime Minister hinted that he might visit Pyongyang, and North Korea began hinting that Kim might visit Moscow in May. Pyongyang also offered Washington a freeze in its nuclear tests, which U.N. Security Council resolutions already prohibit. The White House dismissed this as an “implicit threat,” but the usual suspects called on it to “test North Korea’s intentions.” Once again, Pyongyang broke our unity and resolve before the pressure began to concentrate.
Now that Pyongyang has reneged on its deal with Tokyo, the polarities have flipped again. Now, Japan wants to raise the pressure on Pyongyang, and the U.S. and South Korea want a deal.
The impulsive, emotional, and uncoordinated diplomacy on which Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have wasted the last two decades resembles nothing so much as an engine with a broken distributor. An engine can’t run if its cylinders keep firing during the intake and exhaust cycles, and especially when China is a leaky head gasket. Pyongyang’s charm offensives confuse the circuitry that should keep the cylinders firing in sequence.
For an administration that ran on smarter diplomacy, it has certainly made some dumb mistakes. The dumbest of these was to approach its enemies first and its friends last. Common sense dictates that complex, multilateral diplomacy must be progressive diplomacy. It should begin with agreements with those who generally share our interests, so as to combine their national power to influence those who do not. A coherent policy would have begun with a trilateral agreement between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo on a coordinated policy framework of strategies, benchmarks, and even potential concessions. The allies might then have approached some of North Korea’s trading partners in the EU, Switzerland, and Southeast Asia to improve and coordinate the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Next, this coalition could have exerted coordinated pressure on Russia, China, and a host of African and Middle Eastern governments to stop servicing Pyongyang’s financial transactions and buying its weapons. That, in turn, could have exerted an irresistible economic force on Pyongyang to comply with years of discarded promises, and given diplomacy a plausible (if slim) hope of success.
Instead, like an adolescent’s obsessive pursuit of a suitor, the very desperation with which we pursue our diplomacy ensures that it will never win the object of its desire.
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* Probably a misquote. Two centrifuges would be a garage experiment. Albright probably referred to two centrifuge cascades of several hundred to several thousand centrifuges each.