An Unfortunate Revelation on Securing North Korean Nukes

Specialists on North Korea have cited many reasons over the years for why China cannot be relied on to stop the DPRK from continuing its nuclear and missile buildup. The reasons are by now quite familiar, and have mostly to do with China’s fear that pressuring Kim Jong-un’s regime will destabilize it and produce a chaotic situation adverse to China’s security interests. Yet US administrations have consistently proposed that China is the key to resolving the standoff with North Korea – that if only Beijing would exploit its economic and political leverage with Pyongyang, Kim will be forced to knuckle under.

Today’s news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had, perhaps unintentionally, revealed ongoing US efforts to coordinate with China on the removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a political collapse in Pyongyang further undermines the notion that China has usable leverage. North Korean experts read the newspapers! They have surely known for a long time – and today’s news only reinforces it – about US-China consultations on North Korean nukes. Now Tillerson has confirmed them, saying "We’ve had conversations with the Chinese about how that [removing the nukes] might be done." US sources may say that their Chinese counterparts have resisted reaching an agreement that would avoid a clash should both armies move into North Korea in the wake of a collapse. But the North Koreans have no reason to believe that, and every reason to think this is further evidence of Chinese-American collusion to undermine their regime and occupy their country.

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Momentum for Talks With North Korea?

Possibly, just possibly, a new momentum for direct US-North Korea discussions is developing.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided some of it when, in a talk at the Atlantic Council December 12, he for the first time proposed talks without preconditions – a significant departure from previous remarks, echoed by other senior US officials, in which he insisted on North Korea’s cessation of weapons tests and lowering of tensions before any kind of talks might begin.

Tillerson’s proposal was almost a plea to Pyongyang to respond to an opening, perhaps in recognition that other US officials have lately suggested that time is running out before the US makes a military response to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile tests.  Here’s what Tillerson said:

We’ve said from the diplomatic side, we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. We are ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet, and we can talk about the weather if you want. Talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table, if that’s what you are excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face, and then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map of what we might be willing to work towards.

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A Proposal To Move from Threats to Talks With North Korea

What might it take to create a breakthrough to resumption of US-North Korea talks? The experiences of prior diplomacy suggest an answer: a special emissary of the president to meet with Kim Jong-un. North Korean leaders not only want a reliable deterrent to what they fear is a potential US attack, or attempt at regime change. They also want respect, especially from the United States, which translates to recognition of the country’s status and the regime’s legitimacy – its “supreme dignity,” at one observer puts it.

Use of a special emissary – someone of recognized stature, with appropriate international credentials – would meet the North Koreans’ standard of dignity. The emissary has been successful in a number of dicey situations between North Korea and the United States. Jimmy Carter’s visit to Kim Il-sung in 1994 paved the way for the Agreed Framework, which pre-empted US preparations to attack a North Korean nuclear site. Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 produced an importantly symbolic joint statement of “no hostile intent” when the visit was reciprocated by a top North Korean party leader. Former New Mexico Governor and UN ambassador Bill Richardson’s mission in 2007 recovered the remains of US servicemen killed during the Korean War. Former President Bill Clinton’s visit in June 2009 resulted in the release of two American journalists after Kim Jong-il pardoned them.

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Unintended Consequences and the Warfare State

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.” So wrote Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush in 2002, as Bush prepared to invade Iraq. Blair’s unstinting support of US policy, notwithstanding numerous unknowns and acknowledged large-scale obstacles, is more than a case of over-optimism or misplaced friendship. For as the Chilcot Commission has just concluded after a seven-year long investigation of British policy, bad judgment was multiplied by hubris, a deeply flawed decision-making process, and an unquestioned faith in the ability of military power to resolve political and economic problems.

The essential message from the Chilcot Report goes well beyond British policy in Iraq, or even beyond US policy under Bush, which suffered from the same problems. The report, to my mind, is a commentary on certain diseases that infect foreign policy decision-making processes everywhere. Decision-making groups are always subject to misjudgments, blunders, and misperceptions; but the bigger picture has to do with what Sen. J.W. Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” Powerful like-minded members of a leader’s inner circle (far more often men than women), meeting in secret, with enormous destructive power at their disposal, and believing their country is invincible and their arguments infallible, make for a dangerous combination.

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Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea

Sanctions on North Korea have failed.

North Korea has now been sanctioned five times by the United Nations Security Council for its nuclear and missile tests: resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2270 (2016). UNSC Resolution 2270 is the strongest one yet, spelling out in great detail the proscribed goods and requiring that all parties neither import them from nor export them to North Korea. Each resolution obliges the members to carry out the terms of the sanctions and (as the April 15 press statement of the UNSC says) “facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue.” This is a case of mission impossible for two fundamental reasons: the sanctions will not work, and the fact of them impedes any chance for a “peaceful and comprehensive solution.”

Foremost among the obstacles to an effective North Korea sanctions regime is smuggling along the China-DPRK (North Korea) border. Military items disguised as ordinary goods seem easily able to evade detection thanks to inconsistent inspection by border guards, bribery, false declarations, and North Korean firms based in China that actually belong to military-run trading companies. Since these practices are surely well known to the Chinese authorities, it seems fair to assume they have no strong interest in preventing or at least substantially reducing it – something they could accomplish with a more intensive border inspection process. That China is not doing so no doubt reflects its oft-stated position that the North Korean nuclear issue is the result of other countries’ policies, not China’s, hence that resolving it is others’ responsibility, mainly the US.

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