You would think that the world’s biggest government would be capable of handling more than one global proliferation crisis at a time. Unfortunately, Washington isn’t wired for that kind of bandwidth. Major policy initiatives require political capital, and it will take all of this administration’s dwindling reserves to fend off a new round of Iran sanctions in Congress.* The administration couldn’t defend a deal with North Korea now if it had one, and that goes double for the sort of non-disarmament deal being pushed by the likes of Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth.
Regardless of your subjective views, the Obama Administration’s political position has eroded significantly in the last month. Its approval ratings on foreign policy are almost as low as they are on Obamacare. I suspect that the administration’s approval rating on foreign policy will get a short-term bump — reporters are using words like “historic” and “euphoria,” word choices that have proven to be poor predictors of longer-term success. Opposition to the deal, however, is already significant. Even key Democrats like Bob Menendez and Charles Schumer reason that the deal fails to freeze Iran’s enrichment or do enough to stop its progress toward the Bomb to merit billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and the lost leverage that entails. It can’t help that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is saying this:
Let anyone make his own reading, but this right is clearly stated in the text of the agreement that Iran can continue its enrichment, and I announce to our people that our enrichment activities will continue as before.
Unlike Agreed Framework II in 2007, this deal will exacerbate, rather than mollify, opposition to the President when the President is weakened politically. Agreed Framework II was the Bush Administration’s way of deferring a North Korea debate when it was weakened by Iraq. The Iran deal will intensify the Iran debate when it is weakened by Obamacare. All bets are off, of course, if the Democrats lose the Senate next year, but in the meantime, Democratic senators in swing states will face tough pre-election votes and won’t want to be portrayed as soft on regimes that most Americans loathe. It seems unlikely that the administration would expend more of its capital on appeasing North Korea at a time like this.
Iran could also shape the North Korea debate in other ways, but first, you need to understand the difference between Iran sanctions and North Korea sanctions. Every time North Korea provokes, bands of “experts” emerge to say that our North Korea sanctions are already maxed out (so what can we really do except try to appease them?). What all of these experts have in common is that none of them know what they’re talking about. They’re repeating a consensus formed in an echo chamber — a consensus with little basis in the relevant executive orders (1, 2, 3), statutes, or regulations. In fact, North Korea sanctions are relatively weak — far weaker than the ones that forced Iran to bargain with us.
What made Iran sanctions so devastating wasn’t just their targeted attack on Iran’s regime-linked banks, its oil sector, and the shipping lines that carry Iranian oil to markets in Europe and Asia. It was the fact that they also targeted third parties — Iran’s oil customers, and those who maintain correspondent relationships with its banks. There is nothing comparable to this in the North Korea sanctions regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. By all means, go to Title 31 of the Code of Federal Regulations and do what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing — compare the various sanctions regulations for yourself. We have travel sanctions against Cuba, but not against North Korea, which is holding two U.S. citizens captive, and which abducted and murdered a lawful permanent resident in 2000. We have human rights sanctions against those who stifle free expression in Iran and Belarus (but not North Korea). We sanction those who commit crimes against humanity in Sudan (but not North Korea). We specifically target the oil sectors of Iran and Sudan, but not North Korea’s mineral sector, which has long been associated with its proliferation programs. To get a contract with the U.S. government, you have to certify that you don’t do business with the government of Sudan (but not North Korea). The Burma JADE Act allows Treasury to ban correspondent relationships with Burmese banks (no such authority applies to North Korea). Iran and Burma are listed as primary money laundering concerns, restricting their access to the global financial system. North Korea, the world’s most notorious counterfeiting and money launderer, is not.
Instead, our North Korea sanctions target only a narrow list of individuals, trading companies, and banks that have been specifically linked to WMD proliferation. Although Treasury recently blocked two additional North Korean banks from the financial system, the third-country banks that facilitate North Korea’s illicit and prohibited commerce haven’t been targeted since 2007. We have import and export sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Import sanctions were not applied to North Korea until 2011, and you can still export to North Korea, provided you aren’t shipping any sensitive technology and obtain the requisite license (you might also want to get your money up front). The tough third-party sanctions that disconnected Iran and Burma from the financial system and stranded its assets overseas aren’t in force against North Korea. Overall, our North Korea sanctions are more comparable to those we have against Belarus and Zimbabwe than to those we have against Iran, or even Cuba.
Understanding that difference unlocks some obvious comparisons.
First, it’s no longer possible to make a serious argument that well-crafted sanctions don’t work. By “well-crafted,” I mean the kind of sanction that isolates key sectors of the target’s economy from global trade and finance, not simple bilateral trade sanctions, which are just a beginning.
Second, if the administration’s position is that more Iran sanctions should be deferred because Iran is negotiating in good faith, what basis does the administration have to argue that North Korea sanctions should also be deferred? Last Thursday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the U.S. won’t resume dialogue with North Korea “as long as it keeps key parts of its nuclear weapons program running.” The next day, Special Envoy Glyn Davies said that “North Korea must ‘cease’ all its nuclear activities, both plutonium and uranium, before a resumption” of the six-party talks. Now, the Park Administration is saying that the North must re-commit to denuclearization and agree to “detailed action plans” before new talks. So it’s settled, then — North Korea clings to its nukes, we have nothing to talk about, and by the way, the clock is ticking. South Korea’s Defense Minister is now saying that North Korea now has the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Third, if sanctions at least gave Iran an incentive to negotiate — an incentive that it had lacked for years — then couldn’t they create a similar incentive for Kim Jong Un? North Korea’s economy has a fraction of Iran’s GDP, is far less diverse, and is far more dependent on foreign currency and imports to fund its priorities. We already know that financial pressure forced Kim Jong Il to negotiate in 2006.
Fourth, if the administration is only opposed to Iran sanctions because they could hurt the prospect for a diplomatic solution with Iran, but there is no immediate prospect for talks with North Korea, doesn’t the administration’s argument on Iran look disingenuous if it opposes sanctions on North Korea? Wouldn’t opposition to North Korea sanctions by the administration allow its critics to argue that the administration is reflexively opposed to sanctions because it’s simply weak?
The consensus today is that tough sanctions forced Iran back to the bargaining table after years of stalling, lying, and obfuscation, yet our North Korea sanctions are a pale shadow of the sanctions we have against Iran. Whether you believe that the purpose of sanctions on Iran was to slow its nuclear progress, open the way to diplomacy, or weaken the regime domestically, you can argue that sanctions were moving us in all of those directions. The question that begs is why we aren’t using sanctions to move us toward the same goals with North Korea.
* With apologies for mixing my metaphors.