Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea Options

You’re thinking: Shit, we have options in North Korea?

Wrapping up her tour of Asia, Condi Rice said we do … sort of. Actually, in Tokyo she demanded that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks, then warned that North Korea would not be allowed “to just continue down a road that threatens everyone.”

When she hit Beijing, Barry Peterson of CBS asked her what she meant. Condi took the bait:

Now, it goes without saying that to the degree that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula gets more difficult to achieve if the North does not recognize that it needs to that, then of course we’ll have to look at other options because this is an issue of considerable concern for the United States, but not just for the United States but for every other state in this region.

She got the “options” question twice more in Beijing.

So, what are our options?

The New York Times ran an article by Steve Weisman—under the title of “On Iran, North Korea, Few Options”—quoting Administration officials warning that a failure of the Six Party Talks might lead to economic sanctions. The article follows a good bit of journalism by Weisman’s New York Times colleague David Sanger, who reported on the development of an NSC “tool kit” to target North Korean hard currency earnings such as those generated by drug smuggling:

In the months before North Korea announced that it possessed nuclear weapons, the Bush administration began developing new strategies to choke off its few remaining sources of income, based on techniques in use against Al Qaeda, intelligence officials and policy makers involved in the planning say.

The initial steps are contained in a classified “tool kit” of techniques to pressure North Korea that has been refined in recent weeks by the National Security Council. The new strategies would intensify and coordinate efforts to track and freeze financial transactions that officials say enable the government of Kim Jong Il to profit from counterfeiting, drug trafficking and the sale of missile and other weapons technology.

Some officials describe the steps as building blocks for what could turn into a broader quarantine if American allies in Asia – particularly China and South Korea – can be convinced that Mr. Kim’s declaration on nuclear weapons last week means he must finally be forced to choose between disarmament and even deeper isolation. China and South Korea have been reluctant to impose penalties on the North.

The Bush Administration effort—drafted by Bob Joseph—was apparently inspired by a Japanese law requiring all foreign ships over 100 tons entering Japan to be insured against oil spills, losses and other damage—a requirement few North Korea vessels could meet.

Mike Horowitz, a good friend of both Paul and mine, recently wrote an article in The Washington Quarterly describing “new multilateral initiatives focused on restricting North Korean profits from drug smuggling and counterfeit operations to complement existing, successful efforts to cut into North Korea’s arms export profits…”

I don’t oppose squeezing North Korea’s illicit activities, but sanctions and other forms of economic pressure are means to some other end—and I am not confident the Bush Administration has a settled on a realistic, coherent end for North Korea.

Early in February, Chris Nelson reported that the Bush Administration had still not held “a Principals meeting on what specifically to take to the next 6 Party if one can be scheduled.” At that time, I suggested North Korea’s obstinance might relate to how Pyongyang was reading Bush Administration rhetoric.

The problem—if that guess is accurate—is not too few sticks, but the utter absence of carrots. Sticks and carrots are not fungible; states cannot compensate for a lack of diplomatic incentives by adding potential punishments.

Moreover, targeting Pyongyang’s illicit activities might become a bureaucratic exercise in denial—delaying the inevitable choice between regime change and an approach similar to one envisioned by the Clinton Administration (for a review of those efforts, see Gallucci et al, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, 2004).

Kimberley Ann Elliot, of the Institute for International Economics, has penned a thoughtful op-ed (based on a larger study) on the relationship between sanctions as a means, and the various ends running from denuclearization to regime change.

Paul’s 2 cents: It’s also worth noting that the IAEA Board of Governors has already referred this issue to the UN Security Council, with no result. The Administration has essentially shelved the idea while the Six-Party talks are going on.

Photo Note: Alleged North Korean drug smuggling ship, the Pong Su, is escorted into Sydney Harbor. From The Age.


  1. Brad Arnold (History)

    I wonder if North Korea can peacefully co-exist with the US. I wonder how North Korea will respond to interdiction, sanctions, and other forms of financial pressure?