So the news this week is that the Obama Administration, which for the last five years has stayed its hand from sanctioning North Korea because of Chinese sensitivities, has just blocked the assets of top members of Vladimir Putin’s government over their seizure of the Crimea. That sounds like an effective way to piss them off, but I can’t see how it poses a serious threat to Russia’s economy or Putin’s domestic support, or how it will deter his next aggression. (If you want to do that, give the Ukrainians some capable antitank and antiaircraft missiles, train their troops well, and bait Putin into a long, nasty insurgency that will do to him politically what Chechnya did to Yeltsin.)
The other news this week is that one nuclear test may not be enough for Kim Jong Un, and as I write this, North Korea has just announced a live-fire exercise near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea. North Korea, in contrast to Russia, has unleashed a stream of homophobic, sexist, and arguably racist insults against world leaders, committed crimes against humanity on a massive scale, attacked a U.S. treaty ally twice, proliferated nuclear and chemical weapons technology to Syria, and tested two nukes (and counting).
For which, it faces the full wrath of Samantha Power’s Twitter account.
What this means is that we’re using the strategy against Russia now we that should have used against North Korea ten years ago, that we’re (finally) using the strategy in Syria that we should have used there in 2011 and should be using to help Ukraine defend itself now, we used the strategy in Libya in 2011 that we should have used in Iran in 2009 (only with a more competent follow-through), and we have no North Korea strategy at all. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of a penguin square dance.
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Obama’s visit to Seoul, designed to reassure our Asian allies, coincided with so much bad press about the incoherence of his North Korea policy that it may have had the opposite effect. The Washington Post portrayed the President as at a loss for solutions to a security challenge he underestimated. The New York Times said this and more, revealing that White House staffers are frustrated, divided, and out of ideas:
“We have failed,” said Evans J. R. Revere, who spent his State Department career trying various diplomatic strategies to stop the North. “For two decades our policy has been to keep the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. It’s now clear there is no way they will give them up, no matter what sanctions we impose, no matter what we offer. So now what?”
It is an assessment some of Mr. Obama’s aides say they privately share, though for now the administration refuses to negotiate with the North until it first fulfills its oft-violated agreements to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. A recent effort inside the National Security Council to devise a new approach resulted in a flurry of papers and classified strategy sessions — and the conclusion that all the alternatives to the current course were worse.
“We’re stuck,” one participant in the review said.
The first step toward recovery is recognizing that you have a problem. The second step would be to stop listening to people like Evans Revere who gave you the sort of counsel that got you where you are now. But in the end, the administration is responsible for its own choices. It wasted valuable time on the flawed narrative that Kim Jong Un’s Swiss education meant that he would be a reformer, and “largely left North Korea on the back burner while focusing on sanctions, cyberattacks and pressure on Iran.” This leaves the administration desperate for a deal, yet uncertain what that deal could be:
In recent months the Chinese have led an effort to restart diplomatic talks, and the United States has quietly met with the North. But the goal is unclear. To the United States, the purpose of the talks would be denuclearization; Mr. Kim’s government has already declared that the one thing he will not do is give up his small nuclear arsenal, especially after seeing the United States help unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, who surrendered his own nuclear program in 2003. [N.Y. Times, David Sanger]
It’s implausible to me that the White House would have talked to China and North Korea without some willingness to compromise its demands for denuclearization. That lends further weight to what I wrote here a week ago. My best guess is that they were toying with the idea, but it’s not clear that they committed to it. The only thing that’s clear is North Korea’s position.
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Sadly, our President can’t even sound credible when he threatens to impose new sanctions. Here is what he said in Seoul last week, amid rumors of an imminent nuclear test:
President Barack Obama says it may be time to consider further sanctions against North Korea “that have even more bite” as the country is threatening its fourth nuclear test.
Addressing a joint news conference alongside South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said threats by North Korea will get it “nothing except further isolation” from the global community. But Obama acknowledged there are limits to what impacts additional penalties can have on the country.
“North Korea already is the most isolated country in the world by far,” Obama said. “Its people suffer terribly because of the decisions its leaders have made. And we are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight.” [Korea Herald]
The veracity of that statement depends on the North Korean, but I’ll have more to say about that later this week. As threats go, the President could learn a few things from the North Koreans about clarity and message discipline. He may not believe in a magic bullet — especially if he isn’t really willing to use a high enough caliber — but a speech designed to restore the confidence of nervous allies is no place to sound wobbly, equivocal, and agnostic about his own threats. He’d have been clearer if he’d borrowed the script of ex-aide Robert Einhorn:
“There is no question, if there is fourth round of test, the U.S. will take additional sanctions, steps,” Einhorn, a former adviser on nonproliferation and arms control at the U.S. State Department, said in a press meeting on the sidelines of an international forum in Seoul. “And they will increase the overall effectiveness of the sanctions regime against North Korea. I think it would be a real mistake in terms of North Korea’s own interest for them to go ahead with a nuclear test.” [Yonhap]
Other prominent members of Obama’s party have also been arguing for tougher sanctions recently.
The international community should step up efforts for “targeted sanctions” on the North Korean leadership before it hands over nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, a former U.S. nonproliferation official said Thursday. “The DPRK (North Korea) looks like a good place for targeted sanctions,” said Joseph DeThomas, who served as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under the Bill Clinton administration. [….]
DeThomas emphasized the importance of finding “very targeted mechanisms to go after the leadership of a country doing bad things without doing damage to the population.” He said a lot of hard currency is put aside in foreign banks for leadership purposes. “Any time you can affect their access to hard currency, that has significant impact,” he said.
The problem is not the will to impose sanctions on Pyongyang but a lack of information, said DeThomas. He said the possibility of North Korea proliferating its nuclear technology and equipment is more worrisome than another nuclear test. [Yonhap]
Every word of that makes sense to me. Finally, Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence recently told a Senate subcommittee that North Korea is “susceptible to” financial sanctions:
“What we are going to continue to do is to implement the sanctions programs that we have in place, which are focused on North Korea’s efforts to develop its nuclear program, as well as North Korea’s other illicit activity,” David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at a congressional hearing.
The North is clearly susceptible to sanctions, he added, testifying before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. [….]
The Obama administration is constantly reevaluating what it has been doing with respect to North Korea, which is a topic actively under consideration within the government, he added. Cohen added denuclearizing North Korea is an unswerving goal of the administration. [Yonhap]
Or so we hope. For its part, the U.N. had already been considering the designation of two more North Korean entities — Ocean Maritime Management and Chinpo (snicker) Shipping — for their role in the scheme to smuggle MiG-21s from Cuba to North Korea. But this whack-a-mole strategy can’t hope to outpace North Korea’s production of shell companies. Its banks are its weak link.
There are three things that can be said now that we could not say one year ago today. First, the administration is under new pressure from a newly critical media to show that it has a coherent North Korea policy. Second, if North Korea provokes in some way, the President will come under strong pressure from within his own party, and probably from within his own administration, to impose financial sanctions. Third, the President will face new pressure from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who have offered a coherent alternative to contrast with his own incoherence. Now there is a trigger, just waiting for someone to pull it.
It may well be that if the President is forced to act, he’ll prefer to claim credit by signing an executive order rather than a legislative creation like H.R. 1771. There are certainly loopholes in existing sanctions that the President could close, particularly on human rights, but as with any sanctions regime, the enforcement will be more important than the authority. That’s why the President would make a deeper impression by announcing a round of asset blocking actions under the existing Executive Orders 13,551 and 13,382. But if North Korea continues to provoke, it will only raise more election-year calls for the President to abandon incremental pressure for something that has the potential to change policies — or personnel — in Pyongyang.