The rebirth of an alliance: The U.S., South Korea & Japan are finally getting North Korea policy right

As you and I both know, I spend a lot of keystrokes here kvetching about the lax enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, but I’ve also written that diplomacy is essential to making sanctions work. Now, for the first time I can recall, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are coordinating their policies as allies should. They’ve coordinated their defense responses to the North’s missile test, their calls for tougher U.N. sanctions, their strategies to strengthen sanctions enforcement, and their recruitment of new partners into this coalition. I can’t remember the last time I saw Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington all pull in the same direction. It’s a welcome change from the incoherence of the past.

Japan is our first case in point. After its 2013 nuclear test, Pyongyang foiled coordinated sanctions enforcement by promising to “re-investigate” its past abductions of Japanese citizens. In exchange, Tokyo relaxed sanctions, just as Seoul and Washington were trying to tighten them.

In due course, Pyongyang reneged, and now, Japan is taking a hard line again. Unilaterally, it has banned all but small humanitarian remittances to North Korea, banned port calls by North Korean ships, and imposed “a complete ban on North Korean nationals from entering into Japan.” (President Trump, Prime Minister Abe on line one.) Multilaterally, it is calling sanctions “one of the important tools … to bring a comprehensive solution” and citing the example of Iran as “clear proof that sanctions do work.” Japanese authorities have also arrested a high-ranking North Korean agent and comrade of Lee Seok-ki.

In Washington, the President is poised to sign (and hopefully, enforce) tough new sanctions legislation that passed Congress almost unanimously. Even the editors of the New York Times have belatedly endorsed it. 

While China temporizes, others are acting. Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved strict sanctions intended to limit the North’s ability to finance warheads and missiles. President Obama should sign the measure into law. It is aimed at weapons and traders of raw minerals, as well as money launderers and human rights abusers, and its effects are likely to be felt acutely by Chinese companies, which are most involved with the North. [Editorial, N.Y. Times]

Reuters reports that the President “is not expected to veto the bill, given its huge support in Congress.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said, “I think this is an area where we and Congress are in the same space and agree on the need for increased sanctions.”

The new legislation has drawn enthusiastic support from the South Korean government. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he “expected the secondary boycott clause in the new bill [to] have considerable impact down the line,” and called the bill’s swift passage a sign of U.S. “resolve to tackle this issue.” The South Korean Ambassador even came to Congress to congratulate Ed Royce, who led the congressional revolt against “strategic patience.” Royce, in turn, welcomed Seoul’s decision to shut down Kaesong.

North Korea had a different reaction.

“Unpardonable is the puppet group’s act of totally suspending the operation in the [Kaesong complex], finding fault with the DPRK’s H-bomb test and launch of a satellite,” the committee said in a statement. [….]

“The recent provocative measure is a declaration of an end to the last lifeline of North-South relations, a total denial of the June 15 [2000] North-South Joint Declaration and a dangerous declaration of war, driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war,” the committee said.

It lashed out at President Park Geun-hye, saying that “South Korea will experience what disastrous and painful consequences will be entailed by its action.” [Joongang Ilbo]

FrenchTaunt

[Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries.]

The decision will have financial costs for Seoul, including the confiscation of property, machinery, and land that it will end up paying for. It will also have to write off $2.5 billion in loans that Pyongyang was never going to repay anyway. Moodys may downgrade Seoul’s credit due to the political risk of increased tensions. (Apparently, Seoul’s previous lack of a coherent counterproliferation strategy was less of a risk.)

The decision will also have political costs for President Park. The Unifiction Minister’s inept walk-back of his claim that Pyongyang was using Kaesong funds for nukes will not help matters. Given the way the U.N. resolutions require payers to “ensure” that their money isn’t spent on WMDs and luxury goods, either way, Kaesong was inconsistent with those resolutions, but the unforced error makes Seoul look foolish.

Seoul was lucky in one regard, however — it escaped Kaesong without a hostage crisis. As I’ve argued, Kaesong had actually become a source of inter-Korean tensions. In the long term, its closure may reduce tensions by giving Seoul and Pyongyang one less thing to fight about.

But the most important consequence of shutting down Kaesong wasn’t its elimination as an irritant or the $120 million it funneled into Pyongyang’s accounts each year. It was the removal of Kaesong as a punchline from any call by Seoul for other countries to enforce “bone-numbing” sanctions.

Publicly, the U.S. supported Seoul’s decision, but privately, it may have done more than that. The Joongang Ilbo reports that the U.S. was “adamant” in demanding that Seoul close Kaesong. Even the Russians and Chinese answered South Korean pleas to enforce sanctions by saying, in effect, “You first.”

Park Geun-hye, who has conditionally supported engagement with Pyongyang for her entire political career, now says, “The only way to stop North Korea’s misjudgement is to make [it] realize that it cannot survive unless it abandons its nuclear program.”

So how will she get that point across? Several ways, starting with persuading other countries to “focus on drying up the financial resources of the Kim Jong-un regime.”

Seoul has already begun to build international support for the new strategy. Last week, Foreign Minister Yun was in Munich, where he met with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. There, the two agreed that both “the U.N. Security Council and the European Union should impose strong and effective sanctions on North Korea.” Mogherini said that “the EU will join the international community’s efforts to put pressure on North Korea,” reportedly by restricting cash transfers to Pyongyang. Europe has long provided Pyongyang with banking services and luxury goods, so this could be an extremely important shift.

In Munich, Yun also met with diplomats from the U.S., China, Russia, and Britain, and warned North Korea “that any further provocation” would lead to it “being completely cut off from the rest of the international community.” Separately, the Foreign Ministry also asked Australia to support “multidimensional, multilayered” sanctions on the North.

The Donga-Ilbo also reports that Seoul is “moving to expand overseas its efforts to cut off the funding” for Pyongyang’s WMD programs by trying to shut down Pyongyang’s global slave-rental racket, “by asking each country not to use North Korean laborers.” Initially, Seoul will focus its efforts on Southeast Asia, but also plans to make similar pleas to China and Russia. Seoul estimates that slave labor rakes in $300 million a year for Pyongyang, more than double what Pyongyang earned from Kaesong, but less than half of His Corpulency’s annual luxury goods budget.

The allies are also helping ASEAN member nations buy “high-tech scanning equipment” to help “search North Korean ships on the high seas.” South Korea is also considering a secondary shipping boycott against ships that have visited North Korean ports. (Seoul banned North Korean ships from its ports after the sinking of the Cheonan, in 2010.)

Views within South Korea’s foreign policy establishment have also shifted. This summary of an interview of a panel of South Korean scholars will give you the flavor of it.

Moderator: To summarize, we must rid ourselves of the perceived influence that China has wielded over South Korea since the third nuclear test. Inter-Korean relations are something that we must solve without waiting for China. ‘Trustpolitik’ is over, and we must be ready to add independent sanctions, disband the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and deploy the THAAD missile defense system if we are to have adequate means of self-defense. [Asan Institute]

There’s too much there to do justice in this post; read the whole thing for yourself. What’s clear, at least for the time being, is that we’ve entered the post-Sunshine era of Korean history. 

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests weren’t the only reasons to conclude that the Sunshine Policy had little prospect of reforming or disarming North Korea, or reducing tensions. The recent promotion of Kim Yong-chol, mastermind of the Cheonan and Yeonpyong attacks, was a slap in South Korea’s face, and a clear signal that Kim Jong-un wasn’t interested in improving inter-Korean relations. As they say, personnel is policy. But whether public opinion in South Korea has shifted as strongly remains to be seen, and no policy change can last long without political support.

~   ~   ~

The backdrop to the rise of this new alliance is the U.N. Security Council’s failure to act against Pyongyang, more than a month after its fourth nuclear test. Despite the personal pleas of Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama, China refuses to enforce the very sanctions it previously voted for at the U.N. Security Council.

Meanwhile, a leaked draft of the latest U.N. Panel of Experts report concludes that U.N. sanctions have “failed to prevent Pyongyang from scaling up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” and raises “serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.” The report blames member state governments, “particularly in Africa, for failing to fully implement the measures,” but everyone knows who is principally to blame here.

By covering for Kim Jong-un’s obnoxiousness at the U.N., China is causing the allies to look past the U.N. and toward ad hoc coalitions to disarm Pyongyang. Other coalitions that could play useful roles include the Proliferation Security Initiative , the Global Financial Action Task Force, and an Asian military alliance.

Of course, any expectation that U.N. sanctions could work without robust member state enforcement is fantasy. So is any expectation of robust member state enforcement unless developed states help less-developed ones to build better enforcement capacity, or alternatively, threaten them with secondary sanctions. Once the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have recruited the EU, Canada, Australia, and other law-abiding states into an effective coalition against Pyongyang, we’ll be in a stronger position to do both.

1 Comment

  1. Well done on staying the course with a consistent message. I believe that at least some of the staff of these policy makers would have read your blog, and possibly even have been inspired by it.

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