Last week, Japan and North Korea announced an agreement under which Pyongyang would “conduct a comprehensive survey” of the whereabouts of “Japanese spouses, victims of abduction and mission persons,” both dead and alive, and return them to Japan. In exchange, “Japan has announced that it is lifting sanctions against North Korea on travel, reporting remittances and humanitarian shipping.” Japan also agreed “to examine humanitarian aid to Pyongyang at an ‘appropriate time.’”
Xinhua also reports that Japan may send monitors to North Korea to verify North Korea’s “reinvestigation,” which as I imagine it, would consist of someone saying, “It’s OK boys, untie ‘em.” The latest word is that President Abe himself is talking about visiting Pyongyang, although he won’t, because no one wants to be the one who drags Kim Jong Un away from his Xbox for that.
As is with all “agreements” with North Korea, the two sides’ understandings of the agreement vary. According to KCNA (via Yonhap), Japan also “clarified its will to settle its inglorious past,” and “solve the pending issues and normalize the relations” with North Korea, apparently referring to diplomatic relations. As recently as May 31st, the Japanese and the North Koreans were still arguing about whether Chongryon’s headquarters was part of the deal. In early April, North Korea warned Japan not to bother with talks if Japan held a tax sale of the headquarters of Cheongryeon, its local affiliate and front organization. (Pyongyang later sent Chongryon a $2 million bailout, and asked Japan to rescind a court decision allowing the tax sale of its headquarters.) North Korea had demanded the resumption of ferry services and charter flights, neither of which was mentioned in the final deal. This history informs us that plenty could still go wrong.
Then, there’s the traditional pattern of North Korea preceding nuclear tests with missile tests. In April, as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalated, Japan threatened to shoot down the next North Korean missile that approaches its territory. In May, North Korea said, “Japan should keep in mind that it could be the first hit by a fiery lightning in case of conflict,” the newspaper said, referring to a military strike.
For what it’s worth, North Korea is promising to keep its end of the bargain, although I can’t think of a single international agreement North Korea did keep with anyone other then the U.S.S.R. or China. The other conclusion we can draw from this history is that Japan’s defection from the administration’s coalition shouldn’t have surprised anyone. President Obama had plenty of chances to stop it. Worse, his predecessor planted the seeds that undermined that coalition’s foundation.
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In April, President Obama visited Seoul during a frenzy of speculation that North Korea was either preparing, or ready for, a fourth nuclear test. To deter this, the President said that North Korea’s threats would gain it “nothing except further isolation” from an oxymoron USA Today referred to as “the global community.” “Global” means global, but as the President elaborated, it especially means our treaty allies: “We can’t waver in our intention. We have to make sure that, in strong concert with our allies, that we are continuing to press North Korea to change its approach.”
The President also said, “It is important for us to look at additional ways to apply pressure on North Korea, further sanctions that have even more bite.” (But of course, Congress has already found them. It would take one phone call from the National Security Staff to Harry Reid’s staff to put the President’s finger on the trigger.) Publicly, South Korea sent the same message:
“If North Korea carries out a nuclear test, (it) will certainly have to pay severe costs,” the foreign minister said, urging the communist North to make the right choice. “The North Korean leadership must choose between isolation from the international community, including China, that have resolutely opposed further nuclear tests and the path toward greater cooperation (with them).” [Yonhap]
The President must search for new ways because the old ones haven’t worked. They haven’t worked because when it comes to North Korea policy, everyone is an exceptionalist. Behind the joint statements, Japan’s deal is only the most dramatic example of how our North Korea coalition is falling apart.
In the case of China and Russia, the disunity is understandable. China and Russia are — and see themselves as — our enemies. It’s harder to understand how an administration that stresses and flouts its diplomatic management of alliances can’t coordinate a consistent, coherent policy with its own treaty allies and military dependents. Even the administration concedes that as the first among equals, it is supposed to lead:
I can tell you when we . . . went to Asia back in April, that all of our allies and partners looked to us as their indispensable leader, and want to work and coordinate with us closely because they know their security, our shared values, and our future depend on it.
– Ambassador Susan Rice, June 1, 2014
In early April, there were signs that a coalition was congealing. The Joongang Ilbo reported that “[r]epresentatives from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo reached a consensus on taking measures against North Korea if the regime carries out a fourth nuclear weapons test,” and quoted South Korea’s envoy to the six-party talks threatening to make North Korea “pay a price” for nuking off. But to the extent there was ever unity among North Korea’s five interlocutors, the Japan deal destroyed it. The coalition has collapsed, and it was never that strong to start with.
China is the most obvious exceptionalist of the five. It ignores U.N. sanctions and subsidizes North Korea, mostly to f*ck with us, and also to keep half of Korea as a buffer state and a source of cheap coal and comfort women, while whining disingenuously about how powerless it is do anything about it. As the economist Nicholas Eberstadt says in a new analysis, “[T]he North Korean economy has never before been so totally dependent on the largesse of a single trade patron as it appears to be today.” No one believes a word China says, but no one does anything about it, either.
Russia is an exceptionalist because of Crimea. Old Bolsheviks bang their shoes on podiums; psychopaths do things more quietly — things like importing more North Korean slave laborers, sending their Deputy Prime Ministers to visit Pyongyang, opening new rail lines between Khasan and Rason, signing new economic cooperation agreements with Pyongyang, and writing off almost $10 billion in old North Korean debt (Professor Haggard has more on Russia’s “pivot,” here.) Russia does these things to harm our interests, and to use that as leverage against us. So noted. How many Ukrainians does it take to grease a T-90 with a TOW missile? It’s not an ethnic joke, it’s a question. We have leverage, too.
Even South Korea — the principal beneficiary of deterring North Korea, but also the principal beneficiary of a Pentagon-subsidized status quo — recently had the chutzpah to argue that U.N. sanctions don’t apply to its politically popular “inter-Korean projects,” which are effectively no-strings-attached subsidies into the opaque void of Pyongyang’s palace economy.
Cash earnings from an inter-Korean tour project would not be subject to United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, amid growing expectations for its resumption. [….]
Questions have risen whether North Korea’s earnings from a joint inter-Korean tourism project in the North’s eastern mountain region would violate the resolution banning the transfer of bundles of cash to the wayward country.
“In the ministry’s understanding, (bulk cash banning) is aimed at curbing attempts to transfer illicit funds through hand-carrying with the purpose of circumventing bank trading,” the ministry said in a written response to independent lawmaker Park Joo-sun’s questionnaire regarding the Kumgang tour program and the U.N. sanctions.
Also asked whether the bulk cash restriction applies to commercial transactions over the banking system, the ministry said, “Given the purpose of bulk cash banning in the UNSC resolutions, normal dealings through the banking system are not relevant in our understanding.”
The U.N. has not detected any violations of bulk cash banning so far, while the Kumgang tour program has not been discussed as a possible violation, according to the ministry’s response to the lawmaker.” [Yonhap]
That’s a green answer to a blue question. The fact that Kaesong and Kumgang don’t violate Paragraph 14’s prohibitions on bulk cash transactions doesn’t make them kosher under Paragraphs 11 or 15, which require financial transparency in transactions involving the financial system, including money transfers, correspondent accounts, the opening of new branches, and trade credits. And if there was any transparency, don’t you suppose the Unification Ministry would have answered my questions by now? Sweet Jesus — did they even read the resolution, or are they just lying? Because South Korea sat on the Security Council when that resolution passed. Seoul is hardly in any position to criticize Tokyo or Beijing about North Korea policy. It’s the worst hypocrite of all.
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As for us, I’d say a Japanese diplomat pegged us in 2007, after the second failed Agreed Framework, when he observed that “[t]he United States always jumps to hasty decisions as a presidential election approaches.” In North Korea, the American exceptionalism means that American Presidents seldom let U.N. resolutions get between them and a convenient opportunity to buy North Korea out of the headlines. Despite everything that the last two decades should have taught us, self-described North Korea “experts” still insist that the answer to our nuclear impasse with North Korea is to soften our precondition that North Korea agree to disarm, and appease it with “engagement” initiatives that inevitably provide it regime-sustaining cash. These people still have enough influence within the Obama Administration to have it adopt their failed ideas, or at least float them as trial balloons. Only North Korea’s disinterest in denuclearizing at all has stalled the idea. Kim Jong Il would have taken our money and run like a thief; Kim Jong Un doesn’t even bother to.
Which brings us back to Japan, which has made itself an exceptionalist for more understandable reasons — a desire to bring home its citizens, kidnapped by North Korea decades ago. What makes that especially understandable is that Japan is driven to this desperation because of an exceptionalist grasp by President Bush that, despite his personal assurance to the contrary, betrayed Japan and its abductees. After personally meeting with abductee Megumi Yokota’s mother in the Oval Office, Bush reversed a long-term U.S. policy of listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism for its abductions of Japanese, refusing to lift that designation until the abductees came home. The decision shook the Japanese government and infuriated its people. Here’s a flashback to that event in 2007, and to how Japan’s current Prime Minister reacted at the time:
Japanese politicians like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained this week that the United States should not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until there is a full accounting of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Doing so would harm relations between Tokyo and Washington, Abe warned.
On Wednesday, Bush talked to Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda by telephone and assured him that he had not forgotten about the abductees. And in a nod to Japan in his comments Thursday, Bush said the United States would “never forget” the abductions of Japanese citizens.
On Thursday, Fukuda, a moderate, rejected criticism inside Japan that Tokyo now had little leverage over Pyongyang because of its removal from the terrorism list. He said working with the United States “will be really necessary to realize the denuclearization and, at the same time, pave the way for solving the abduction issue, which is a major task for our country.”
North Korea recently agreed to reinvestigate the abductions, while Japan said it would lift some minor sanctions against the North. But so far, Tokyo has refused to contribute energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation nuclear agreement, and Japanese participation is expected to become crucial as considerably more assistance has been promised to the North.
Both Bush and Rice addressed the strong sentiment in Japan that the Bush administration had abandoned Tokyo, its most important ally in Asia, for the sake of reaching an imperfect agreement with the North.
“We’re continuing to expect the North Koreans to take this issue seriously because it is a major issue for Japan and it’s a major issue for the United States,” Rice said of the abductions issue. [N.Y. Times]
With malice aforethought, we threw one of our closest allies under the bus to appease our most implacable and mendacious enemies. That’s not deference to our allies, it’s deference to our enemies and a betrayal of our allies. It isn’t smart diplomacy, either; you can see how well it worked out for us. None of that is President Obama’s fault, of course, but it is his fault that the same State Department geniuses are still running our North Korea policy today instead of stamping passports in Bamako. We’re still paying the price for their incompetence today.
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It’s difficult to calculate the value of this financial windfall without knowing just how soon North Korea will renege, and just how much reneging prepared Japan is to tolerate. It could be substantial, and loosening restrictions on remittances could be an early payoff. Japan and North Korea are natural trading partners, and as The Hankyoreh notes, “Trade between North Korea and Japan was as high as 46 billion yen (US$452 million) in 2002 before plummeting to 14.1 billion yen (US$138.7 million) in 2006, then drying up more or less completely.” Not bad for a country with a GDP of about $40 billion (privately, economists scoff at that figure). Thus, North Korea rakes in a big payday just as it threatens to conduct a new nuclear test, and just as President Obama is trying to prevent that by threatening to starve North Korea of cash.
The South Koreans, oblivious to their own hypocrisy, sound angry and bitter about Japan cutting a deal:
A South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday: “It was just a relationship between two isolated leaders, Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom have no friends in Northeast Asia.” The deal threatens to break the united front that Japan, South Korea and the United States have maintained in dealing with Pyongyang. [Joongang Ilbo]
Diplomats often let such things go unsaid, but not today. This has caused a real rift among nations that have common interests and ought to act like allies:
Following reports of a fresh deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, South Korean officials warned of a possible negative impact on the troubled denuclearization process.
“We understand the importance of the abduction issue in Japan’s diplomacy, but now is an important time for South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia to cooperate for the denuclearization of North Korea and preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear capability,” a senior South Korean diplomat here said on background. [Yonhap]
Japan defended the agreement.
Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, says the move does not mean Japan is out of step with the United States and South Korea on the issue. “It’s impossible – this agreement covers sanctions that Japan imposed on its own,” he said. “It is not related to UN sanctions.”
In fact, the relaxation of rules against remittances has the immediate potential to violate UNSCR 2094, depending on what restrictions and reporting requirements Japan puts on them. Lifting the travel ban certainly raises the risk of bulk cash smuggling from Japan to North Korea. If Japan’s “aid” to North Korea takes the form of cash, it also has the potential to violate U.N. sanctions, although it’s not clear what nature, amount, or form the aid would take. The greater point is one that even some Japanese can see — that North Korea’s game is to disrupt or offset any international coalition that could focus deterrent economic pressure. It’s succeeding because no one is leading that coalition.
Among the most significant is the possible easing of a ban on cash remittances from the thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are loyal to the regime. That could provide the North with much-needed hard currency for its weapons programs, and could undermine international efforts to bring the regime to heel, said academic and activist Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University.
“Kim Jong-Un’s regime has won a major compromise,” he told AFP. “It has secured a way for money to flow to North Korea. “Kim has issued an order to Chongryong (its de facto embassy in Japan) to press Korean business people to invest, which will mean cash flowing to North Korea.“They badly want this money to maintain the regime and to fund the nuclear program.” [Japan Today]
In the short term, Pyongyang has managed to split the allied coalition and disrupt its strategy for deterrence — a strategy that won’t work if various nations continue to put their individual interests ahead of the collective interest in disarming North Korea. Today, Pyongyang is doing a better job of using those individual interests to divide its neighbors than anyone else is doing of coordinating a collective response to deter it. The only nation with the financial, diplomatic, and military clout to coordinate an international response is the United States.
The Obama Administration doesn’t quite seem to be paying attention. The potential exists for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to coordinate effective pressure on North Korea. Even China seems irritated at Kim Jong Un, and the fragile condition of its economy increases U.S. financial leverage over the Chinese banks that hold most of Kim Jong Un’s offshore deposits. This could be the best opportunity we’ve had in years to roll back Pyongyang’s destructive ambitions. Instead, the North Koreans are taking advantage of this leadership vacuum, appealing to the individual interests of China, South Korea, and Japan, and dividing the nations whose cooperation could put devastating economic pressure on Pyongyang.
North Korea will break its word, of course, at a time of its choosing. The result will be a more dangerous world for Japan, South Korea, and the United States.