In retrospect, it was probably unfortunate that James Person and Jane Harman began their Washington Post op-ed, “The U.S. needs to negotiate with North Korea, with Albert Einstein’s apocryphal definition of insanity.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
To anyone who knows anything about the long history of our negotiations with North Korea, that’s a poor argument, but a terrific punchline, because what Person and Harmon spend the rest of their op-ed advocating is the very exemplar of that definition. I’ll spare you the suspense — it’s another freeze and maybe some day, another agreed framework. We’ll need to show “additional flexibility” — in addition to all the concessions we already gave away in the last umpteen deals. We must make “use of carrots as well as sticks,” except Person and Harmon don’t say how many carrots, and they spend most of their ink arguing why the sticks don’t work. They seem to operate on the assumption that if we’d only throw away our best leverage — sanctions — the North Koreans would negotiate with us for sure.
But “let’s talk to North Korea” is to diplomacy what “let’s stare at the sun” is to astronomy. Talk about what? North Korea has said again, and again, and again that it isn’t giving up its nukes. “Let’s talk to North Korea” is Underpants Gnomes diplomacy, because none of the gnomes can tell us what Phase 2 is.
I wonder where Harman and Person have been for the last 25 years. Surely they’ve heard that we signed disarmament agreements with Pyongyang in 1994 and 2007. Before that, in 1992, there was the inter-Korean denuclearization agreement. Pyongyang signed a trilateral safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1977, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985, and another IAEA safeguards agreement in 1992. There was also the 2005 Joint Statement, in which North Korea again agreed to disarm. Why are we supposed to believe that this time is really different, now that His Porcine Majesty is almost fully nuked up?
The current vogue is to argue that all of these agreements may have been too ambitious, so Phase 1 1/4 should be a more limited freeze deal. Except President Obama did that, too, in 2012. The North Koreans reneged within six weeks. In between all these deals, there were countless meetings of the New York Channel or Track 2, side meetings in ASEAN summits, and hostage-retrieval missions by ex-presidents and spymasters. Did no one talk during those meetings? Were our mouths full of ssoondae every single time?
Next, Person and Harmon try to pass themselves off experts on sanctions they clearly don’t understand.
For years we have applied industrial-strength unilateral and multilateral sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to denuclearize.
This term, “industrial strength,” is not a legal term of art, but if it’s supposed to mean that the sanctions were strong, I’ve debunked this again and again. Or, you can take it from Kurt Campbell. Because Harman and Person are only fake sanctions experts, they don’t know that until February, the U.S. actually had stronger sanctions against Zimbabwe and Belarus than against North Korea. (I don’t call myself an expert on sanctions, but at least I’ve read them.) Since March, the international community has begun implementing stronger new U.N. sanctions, but even tough sanctions take time to work — three years in the case of Iran.
On what basis should we believe the authors know anything about sanctions? Jane Harman was respected as a centrist on the House Intelligence Committee, which isn’t a sanctions-writing committee, though I still wonder why she signed on for this. James Person’s bio says he’s a Korea studies expert who specializes in poring through old Soviet archives. He’s also been on an anti-sanctions jihad, so I’ll suppose he wrote most of this. I don’t know him, but I’ll buy him a beer as soon as he emails me to say that he’s actually read the sanctions — the Security Council resolutions, the new sanctions law, the executive orders, the regulations, the general licenses, and the SDN designations should be a good start. (Do the Washington Post’s editors routinely ask contributors questions like these? In the times I’ve been published there, they’ve always asked me to show my sources on a few points.)
We have also urged China — North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner — to use its unique leverage to halt Kim Jong Un’s provocations, which also threaten China. But neither strategy is working.
We’ll come back to this point later, when Person and Harmon contradict themselves on it.
Six months after the implementation of harsh new sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, North Korea remains defiant.
U.N. sanctions have only been partially implemented. Here are the implementation reports. Plenty of them are missing, others are incomplete, and other countries (China) are still cheating. Even the U.S. still hasn’t published its final rule cutting off correspondent relationships with North Korean banks.
While few expected the sanctions to work overnight, the timeline for any results will be even longer than most anticipate. Sanctions are uniquely ineffective against North Korea.
Wrong. North Korea may deny its people access to international markets — yes, so much for engagement — but the regime itself has proven to be uniquely vulnerable to financial sanctions, provided we can summon the political will to enforce them.
Our timelines are simply out of sync. It will take far too long for sanctions to persuade North Korea’s leaders to complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement as a prerequisite for talks, and we also can’t expect China to use all of the cards in its deck.
Sanctions take too long — this from the same school that was recently promising us Gorbasms of glasnost from Swiss-educated reformer Kim Jong-un. That wasted decades and billions (including South Korean aid) on “engagement” that never moved North Korea one step in a more peaceful or humane direction, and whose proceeds may well have ended up in Kim Jong-il’s nuke fund. That feigns shock that sanctions haven’t brought North Korea to heel eight months after the U.S. passed its first comprehensive sanctions law. That turned Ri Sol-ju’s hemlines into its own doomsday clock, in the hope that if we threw enough money at Pyongyang, they might open an Arby’s by 2030, or 2035, tops. (Recently, I’ve often wondered why journalists and editors who wouldn’t think to print the views of Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz about Iraq still print the views of those who advocated for “engagement” with North Korea years after the costly failure of that policy should have been obvious.)
The effectiveness of sanctions is also limited because of China’s protection. Chinese leaders recognize that their economic leverage over North Korea is a double-edged sword, because sustained pressure could lead to state and societal collapse, precipitating a flood of refugees into northeast China. The collapse of North Korea could also lead to a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on China’s border — which China perceives as a worse outcome than a nuclear North Korea serving as a buffer state.
This isn’t quite an outright call to lift sanctions, but it certainly isn’t calling for us to do what we’ll have to do for sanctions to work — enforce them. Any “negotiation” that begins with throwing away this essential leverage is the very definition of appeasement. It would ensure the failure of diplomacy, seal North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, and increase the danger of nuclear war.
Besides, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the submissiveness of Pyongyang to Beijing.
I’ll leave to others the mostly speculative and probably disinformed parlor game about relations between China and North Korea. Myself, I believe almost none of what I read about that except the trade statistics, and I’m not even sure I still believe those. What’s clear is that until last week, Chinese businesses felt free to violate U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and Chinese banks still feel free to hold the deposits of those companies, and of North Korea’s own Bureau 39 managers. It’s equally true that fake sanctions experts have long exaggerated the submissiveness of the Chinese banking industry to the government in Beijing. Case in point: in 2007, as part of the second agreed framework, the U.S. agreed to give North Korea back $25 million in blocked laundered money from Banco Delta Asia. The Chinese government asked the Bank of China to do the transfer. The BoC wouldn’t touch the money. The New York Fed ended up moving it instead. If sanctions opponents have ever grasped the influence of the U.S. Treasury Department over the Chinese banking industry, they’ve pretended not to.
Suggesting that academics should take the time to study and understand a subject as specialized as sanctions law before opining on it eventually takes on all the futility of playing Shostakovich sonatas in honky-tonks. Fortunately, members of the House and Senate of both parties get it. They want the President to hold the Chinese banking industry accountable for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money through our financial system because (1) he has an obligation to enforce our laws and U.N. Security Council resolutions, (2) it’s the strategy that brought Iran back to the table, and (3) it’s the strategy that brought North Korea back to the bargaining table in 2007.
Expecting China to influence North Korean policies means asking China to do precisely what North Korea most resents. Chinese officials recognized that complying with the West’s wishes would only antagonize North Korea further.
There’s no limit to how far you can extend this argument. Enforce U.N. sanctions? Antagonizing! Annual military exercises to defend our treaty allies? Antagonizing! Talking about human rights and political prison camps? Very, very antagonizing! Allow Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to make stupid movies parodying North Korea’s ridiculous, morbidly obese dictator? Extremely antagonizing! Respond when North Korea shells South Korean territory or sinks its warships? Dangerous and provocative! Denying North Korea its sovereign right to nuke up, or build submarines capable of nuking our cities? You can see where this logic ends. Or rather, never does.
Stalk the North Koreans and beg for a deal all you want, but from where I sit, they’re no more into you than Jodie Foster was into John Hinckley. We’ve been on this paper chase for a quarter of a century now. What sounds like the definition of insanity to me is watching North Korea violate an armistice, the NPT, two IAEA safeguards agreements, an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement, two agreed frameworks, a joint statement, the Leap Day Deal, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions — and then believing that yet another piece of paper is our ticket to salvation. North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea and the U.S. show that it will not quietly coexist with us when it has nuclear weapons. Much time has been wasted, and the problem is much harder to solve now than it would have been when President Obama took office eight years ago. If it isn’t too late, our first and best step toward stopping Kim Jong-un would be to tune out the insanity that got us into the mess we’re in now.