Your humble blogger has spent the better part of his trip to Seoul at a conference co-sponsored by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Asia Institute. The topic was "New Strategic Thinking: Planning for Korean Foreign Policy," and I got invited because I edited this a few years ago. I hope that the Korean Foreign Ministry benefitted from it. I certainly learned a few things:
1) No one knows what the f**k the North Koreans are doing. There were representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea on the panels. I talked to a lot of them informally during breaks and meals as well. No one had any clue why Pyongyang had ratcheted up tensions to the extent that they did over the past two months. About the only thing approximating a consensus was the belief that the North Koreans were in fact bluffing about starting outright hostilities -- which makes their behavior all the more puzzling. In triggering the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park, the North Koreans cost themselves about $90 million a year that they can't afford to lose.
2) Chinese academics are getting more interesting. As recently as five years ago, my eyes used to glaze over whenever a Chinese academic started speaking at a policy conference. The reason was that there was a 100 percent certainty that the academic would simply repeat standard PRC boilerplate that didn't deviate from official government positions. An academic agreeing with one's government is not a sin, but only parroting official discourse is pretty friggin' useless.
Something has changed in recent years, however. Maybe I'm being invited to a better class of conferences, but I don't think that's it. Chinese academics are more willing to openly discuss ongoing debates within the Chinese foreign policy community about the wisdom of a certain course of action. At this conference, Qingguo Jia asserted that the Chinese really were rethinking their relationship with North Korea. Now one can debate whether the Standing Politburo is really entertaining such thoughts, but the fact that there's a public conversation about it is pretty interesting.
3) The best-laid foreign policy plans get destroyed by real-world events. The conference was devoted to how the South Korean government could implement Park Geun-Hye's concept of Trustpolitik that she articulated during her campaign for the presidency. The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang. Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis are very high.
It is to Park's credit that she seems to recognize this and has yanked ROK workers from Kaesong as a signal of South Korea's resolve. Trustpolitik is a great phrase, but I'm dubious of whether it will accomplish anything.
4) It's the little things that matter to build mutual goodwill. That's a fancy way of noting the following: if you are a Caucasian academic in South Korea, can use chopsticks proficiently, and actually like kimchee, your South Korean counterparts will treat you like a god.
Your humble blogger has been too hard at work
trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.
Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.
1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."
2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.
3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.
4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.
5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.
So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?
Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:
Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…
The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.
So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.
So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:
No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)
The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.
The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.
Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:
One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…
Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.
I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.
So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.
Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.
Am I missing anything?
Roger Cohen has a column modestly titled "Diplomacy Is Dead." Let's see what he's talking about:
Diplomacy is dead.
Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.
This is an age of impatience, changeableness, palaver, small-mindedness and an unwillingness to talk to bad guys. Human rights are in fashion, a good thing of course, but the space for realist statesmanship of the kind that produced the Bosnian peace in 1995 has diminished. The late Richard Holbrooke’s realpolitik was not for the squeamish.
There are other reasons for diplomacy’s demise. The United States has lost its dominant position without any other nation rising to take its place. The result is nobody’s world. It is a place where America acts as a cautious boss, alternately encouraging others to take the lead and worrying about loss of authority. Syria has been an unedifying lesson in the course of crisis when diplomacy is dead. Algeria shows how the dead pile up when talking is dismissed as a waste of time....
Indeed the very word “diplomacy” has become unfashionable on Capitol Hill, where its wimpy associations — trade-offs, compromise, pliancy, concessions and the like — are shunned by representatives who these days prefer beating the post-9/11 drums of confrontation, toughness and inflexibility: All of which may sound good but often get you nowhere (or into long, intractable wars) at great cost.
Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, wrote in an e-mail that, “When domestic politics devolve into polarization and paralysis the impact on diplomatic possibility becomes inordinately constraining.” He cited Cuba and Iran as examples of this; I would add Israel-Palestine. These critical foreign policy issues are viewed less as diplomatic challenges than potential sources of domestic political capital....
Obama has not had a big breakthrough. America’s diplomatic doldrums are approaching their 20th year.
Narrow-minded domestic politics.... check... Web 2.0 short-termism... check... yes, this is indeed the exemplar of the Grumpy Old Diplomatic Hand column. So as a Grumpy Middle-Aged Academic, I'd like to grouse a bit on these alleged truisms.
Now on the one hand, Cohen has a point that the optics of patient diplomacy can be more politically challenging than military statecraft. The use of force tends to arouse domestic suipport; diplomacy can be painted as an act of weakness or appeasement. And one can certainly think of Cuba, Iran or even Israel/Palestine as places where diplomacy has not achieved liftoff capacity. And, yes, Web 2.0 technologies do make things like "backchannel diplomacy" that much more difficult to keep under wraps.
All that said.... give me a f**king break.
First of all, there's a logical tension hidden within Cohen's narrative. He laments the disappearance of patient diplomacy in one breath and then observes the relative decline in U.S. power in the next. Maybe it's not that U.S. patience has withered, but that a hegemon with less weight to throw around requires even greater levels of patience to achieve the same tasks. In the case of Syria, for example, it's kinda hard to see how more realpolitik would have gotten states with fundamentally divergent national interests to agree on a manageable solution. Indeed, one could argue that the tropuble with America's Syria diplomacy has been too much realpolitik, not too little.
Second of all, Cohen is glossing over some examples of patient diplomatic successes. Even in Syria, there have been examples of successful "concert" diplomacy. The U.S. opening to Myanmar would be another example [UPDATE: Cohen tweets in response that he did in fact mention Myanmar. He's right, and I apologize for not noting that fact.]. This is a case where the Burmese themselves have done a lot of the heavy lifting, but it's to the Obama administration's credit that it nimbly seized on the opportunity. Indeed, this has been part of an overall Asia/Pacific strategy that would appear to epitomize the kind of hard-headed diplomacy that Cohen does. Even the Sino-American handling of the Chen Guangcheng case represents an example of deft diplomacy in response to Web 2.0 technology.
Third -- and most important -- diplomacy is a two-player game. There have been cases where the Obama administration has reached out to leaders with a different worldview in an effort to normalize relations -- think about the "reset" with Russia. It would be safe to describe that effort as "fraught with complications." Most of the friction in the Russia reset has nothing to do with the domestic American causess Cohen highlights, however, and everything to do with Russian policymakers
feeling their relative power wane being extremely wary of the outreach effort. Similarly, Iran's domestic politics during the Obama years have been... complicated. It's not clear whether the most generous U.S. offer would actually be accepted by Iran's current political establishment.
One could argue that Cohen's logic, extended globally, does have some heft. It's not just the rise of domestic impediments in the United States -- it's the increased importance of domestic politics in diplomacy in other countries that makes realpolitik statecraft so hard to execute in the 21st century. But let's be clear -- this phenomenon has little to do with the Internet age, the decline in American power, or even the rise of single-issue interest groups. Ironically, it has more to do with the effect a successful American grand strategy -- the promotion of open polyarchic politics in the rest of the world. Even authoritarian countries like China, or quasi-authoritarian countries like Russia have domestic interests and bases to sate. The domestic politics in these countries is far more open than it was during the heyday of realpolitik diplomacy.
As International Relations 101 will say, adding domestic constraints narrows the possibility of any international agreement. I agree with Cohen that this is happening. I disagree with Cohen as to the reasons why. It has very little to do with the United States, and an awful lot to do with the rest of the world.
So, to sum up: diplomacy's death has been greatly exaggerated, and a lot of what ails it has very little to do with the United States.
Am I missing anything?
You know, as 2013 dawns, there's a brewing debate about whether America is now just a "mediocre" country. As a long-run optimist about the America's future, however, I'm pretty dubious of the mediocrity argument. There are too many areas where the United States excels in to write the country off: high tech, higher education, Hollywood, and so forth.
Of course, these strengths are meaningless in foreign policy terms unless the American government can wisely and adroitly deploy them when necessary. Consider, for example, this story from Yonhap about whether Ri Sol-Ju, the first lady of North Korea, has had a baby:
An apparent loss of weight by Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, fueled speculation in Seoul Thursday that she may have given birth.
A government source, who declined to be identified, said images on the Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station showed a slimmer Ri watching a live New Year's performance with her husband and other high-ranking dignitaries.
He claimed local experts who saw the footage of the first lady speculated that, judging by the weight loss, she may have given birth recently.
This claim was based on the contrast between the latest images taken on New Year's Day and those released in mid December. Pictures of Ri taken last month showed her face looking puffy and there was a noticeable swelling in her midsection.
Here's the photos related to the story:
All I can say is, I hope that the salient U.S. intelligence agencies -- the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Administration, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and, of course, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- bring in America's leading experts on the "baby bump." And by leading experts, I'm talking about the analysts who populate stories in People, Us Weekly, Star Magazine, Perez Hilton, and the National Enquirer on celebrity baby bumps. Because I will not stand idly by while one of America's greatest strengths -- our unparalleled advantage in celebrity tabloid journalism -- stands on the sidelines when this pressing question about one of the biggest threats to stability in the Pacific Rim persists.
[Really, isn't the U.K. the unparalleled leader in tabloids? I mean, they invented the term "baby bump"!--ed. They've been weakened by internal scandals and distracted by Kate Middleton. It's America's time to shine!!!!]
As the Barack Obama gears up his re-election campaign, plenty of political commentators have proffered their advice for which past American election should guide his strategy. Why not look overseas, however? After all, in North Korea, paramount leader Kim Jong Un visited some newly-built apartments that his father Kim Jong Il " paid deep attention from sites to designing and building." Apparently, the residents were crying at the opportunity to meet Kim and his wife. That's leadership.
On the other hand, Kim's visit smacks a bit of standard Western politicking. Maybe Obama should be thinking on a more grandiose level.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kramer provides an excellent template, recounting the heroic exploits of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.
While Mr. Putin recently has found some resistance to his stewardship at home, he found a more receptive crowd among his feathered followers. Experts say that when raised in captivity, these cranes quickly form bonds with figures they perceive as parents. That is a role, apparently, that Mr. Putin has been training for....
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, however, was later compelled to admit that the discovery was staged.
Oh, man, now I want Putin to be my president, but only after he strangles three enemies of the United States with his bare hands!! I don't care if the enemies are already dead when he does it -- this is a real leader!!
Sure, skeptics might point out that the last time a president of the United States got all macho and donned a flight suit, it didn't end well. And maybe, just maybe, a political leader trying to act like a superhero is harkening back to the outdated and ephemeral notion of Weberian charismatic leadership. Or, perhaps, this kind of derring-do realy masks personal insecurities and... inadequacies that don't need to be discussed on a family blog. But dammit, in this world of the new normal, we need heroes!!
I hereby challenge my readers to devise new heroic exploits for Barack Obama to accomplish as a way of exercising raw, pure, unfiltered leadership. Here are a few suggestions:
2) Inspired by Man on Fire, Barack Obama goes to Mexico and takes care of the drug cartel problem -- single-handedly.
3) After three years, Barack Obama has laid the groundwork for collecting an assemblage of fellow crusaders for truth, justice and the American Way. With a superteam of Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Seal Team Six, Tom Cruise, the cast of The Expendables, Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh, Misty-May Treanor, the 1992 and 2012 Dream Teams, and -- of course -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, this elite group of avengers reverse-Red Dawns the Russian Federation, defeating Putin and vanquishing, once and for all, America's number one geopolitical foe.
Any other suggestions?
Foreign policy wonks and international relations scholars have summer daydreams just like everyone else. So I can only imagine what my colleagues thought when they read about the latest TV special in Pyongyang:
After a failed missile launching, aborted diplomacy with Washington, and continuing international pressure over the country’s nuclear program, North Korea’s untested young leader has tried once again to take a dramatic step with his isolated, impoverished nation, this time with a bit of unapproved help from Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh.
North Korean state-run television on Monday showed footage of costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of the leader Kim Jong-un, and an entourage of clapping generals.
The footage also showed Mr. Kim in a black Mao suit watching as Mickey Mouse conducted a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses. At times, scenes from the animated Disney movies “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were projected on a multipanel screen behind the entertainers; an article in the state-run press said unnamed foreign songs were on the bill.
The appearance of the characters from the United States, North Korea’s mortal enemy, was remarkable fare on tightly controlled North Korean television, which usually shows more somber and overtly political programs. A Disney spokeswoman, Zenia Mucha, had no comment Monday beyond a statement: “This was not licensed or authorized by the Walt Disney Company.”....
The performance was not the first time the Kim dynasty’s fate had been entwined with Disney. In 2001, the current leader’s older brother, Kim Jong-nam, was apparently banished from the line of succession after being detained by the Japanese authorities while trying to enter Japan on a Dominican Republic passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland.
If you look at Sky News' YouTube clip of the show, it does seem like there's a whole Disney Princess theme going on as well:
The BBC reports that this production "seems to point to an easing of North Korea's paranoia about what it calls spiritual pollution from the West." Or... a Kim obsession with Disney. Take your pick.
In full summer daydream mode, I think this is an outstanding opportunity to pursue unconventional statecraft towards Pyongyang. Clearly, there's something about Disney that renders the Kim family weak at the knees. Clearly, the best way to exploit this vulnerability is to have the State Department commission Disney to make a film containing Zoolander-like subliminal images that target the Kim family in particular to subvert their own regime. We know (sorta) that Disney has done this before. We know that even someone as wide-eyed as Katy Perry can be weaponized. Why shouln't the United States exploit its soft power and deploy the Disney Gambit against the Kims?
Because it's the summer and I'm lazy In the interest of participatory policymaking, I hereby encourage readers to submit their own plots and subliminal messaged ideas in the comment stream. Let's make this manipulation of Kim Jong Un a reality!
So it turned out that this was the week that both the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign decided that foreign policy was an important thing to talk about during election season. Speaking personally, this is great!! I seem to have moved up in the Rolodex of those covering the campaign. Expect lots of juicy quotes in the months to come, and readers are warmly encouraged to proffer useful metaphors that I can provide in soundbite fashion over the next six months.
Unfortunately for the Romney campaign, this was not a great week to ramp up attacks along this line. The reasons is that, all told, the Obama administration had a pretty good foreign policy week. Not all, or even most of this, was of its own doing, but consider the following:
1) Iran has signaled a genuine willingness to talk compromise on its nuclear program in order to avoid the EU oil embargo kicking in. That might just be rhetoric, but it's interesting to note that even senior Israeli officials are starting to talk down the Iranian threat. The less Iran becomes a thing, the
lower gas prices can fall better for the administration.
2) The United States has maybe, just maybe, eliminated a major thorn in bilateral relations with Japan by finally reaching agreement on moving U.S. troops from Okinawa. We'll see if this holds -- everyone assumed that a 2006 agreement had put this problem to rest before successive Japanese governments
shot themselves in the foot raised it again, but this is the thing on this list for which the administration deserves the most credit. As an added bonus, the administration actually got some nice words from John McCain on comity with the Senate.
3) For some reason China seems to be in a more productive mood in their dealings with the United States, and Mark Landsler and Steven Lee Myers have taken notice in the New York Times:
For years, China stymied efforts to pressure Iran. Now, in addition to throwing its weight behind the sanctions effort, officials say, Beijing is also playing a more active role in the recently revived nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany. While in past negotiations, Beijing has followed in lockstep the positions taken by Russia, this time Chinese diplomats are offering their own proposals.
“One of the key elements of making this work is unity among the major powers,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. “The Chinese have been very good partners in this regard.”
There are also signs of new cooperation on Syria. Only weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called China’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution “despicable,” China is supporting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for the strife-torn country and is deploying monitors to help oversee it. Even on North Korea, which China has long sheltered from tougher international action, the Chinese government quickly signed on to a United Nations statement condemning the North’s recent attempt to launch a satellite.
And there is progress on the economic front: American officials said China recently loosened trading on its currency, the remninbi, which could help close a valuation gap with the dollar that has stoked trade tensions between China and the United States during an election year.
To some seasoned observers of China, these developments are less a harbinger of a new era of cooperation between Beijing and Washington than evidence that, at least for now, the interests of the two countries coincide in some important areas.
The administration will nevertheless be happy to pocket the policy dividends.
4) Staying in Northeast Asia, it turns out that the big bad North Korean ICBMs are little more than a pipe dream -- and western analysts are starting to say that Kim Jong Un is naked in the public square:
North Korea tried to flex its military might with an extravagant parade on April 15, just three days after it admitted that its missile test had been a failure, but analysts now say that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in the meticulously choreographed parade were nothing more than props.
The analysts studied photos of the six missiles and came to their conclusion for three primary reasons: 1. The missiles did not fit the launchers that carried them. 2. The missiles appear to be made out of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel components that are unable to fly together. 3. The casings on the missiles undulate which suggests the metal is not thick enough to hold up during flight.
"There is no doubt that these missiles were mock-ups," Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie , wrote in a paper recently posted on Armscontrolwonk.com. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work."
If the U.S. government can claim progress on Iran, China, North Korea, and Japan in one week, that's a good foreign policy week. Of course, for a lot of these issues, the administration is the beneficieary of circumstances rather that pro-active policies. Still, the administration deserves some credit for some of these development.
It's just one week, though. And I fear the most memorable statement about American foreign policy is this rather unfortunate choice of words:
NOTE TO WHITE HOUSE/CAMPAIGN SPEECHWRITERS: In the future, avoid having Biden utter any of the following: "big stick", "hard power", "pounding the enemy", "won't take no for an answer", and "smooth-talking his adversaries".
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger has been underwhelmed with Mitt Romney's foreign policy pronouncements to date. Sure, I thought what he was saying was far better than most of the rest of the GOP 2012 field, but that's like complimenting Moe on being the smart Stooge.
The past month or so have not helped matters. During this period, Romney has continued to harp on Obama's non-existent "apology tour", published an op-ed on China that the Hulk could have drafted, and labeled a dysfunctional and demographically dying state our number one geopolitical foe.
In fairness, the Romney campaign has a tough task. Obama's foreign policy has been far from perfect, but he's hit the key notes reasonably well. U.S. standing abroad has risen considerably, Osama bin Laden is dead, U.S. grand strategy has pivoted towards the most dynamic region in the world, and his Secretary of State is a badass texter. There are angles where Romney could try to hit Obama - the Iraq withdrawal, the planned drawdown in Afghanistan -- except that the American public overwhelmingly endorses these moves. That ground is not fertile. This has reduced the Romney campaign to do little but shout "Iran is dangerous! Israel is getting thrown under the bus!!" a lot. The fact that the Obama White House seems delighted to highlight this stuff is not a good sign for the Romney folk.
This is a shame. Foreign policy might actually matter in this campaign, and it would be nice if there was a genuine debate. For that to happen, however, the Romney campaign needs to actually mount a substantive critique as opposed to a purely oppositional one. They need to seize on an issue and show how it represents the flaws of Obama's foreign policy approach.
Might I suggest North Korea? From today's New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Jane Perlez:
With North Korea poised to launch a long-range missile despite a widespread international protest, the Obama administration is trying to play down the propaganda value for North Korea’s leaders and head off criticism of its abortive diplomatic opening to Pyongyang in late February....
[T]he administration’s options are limited. The United States will not seek further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, this official said, because North Korea is already heavily sanctioned and Washington needs to preserve its political capital with China and Russia to win their backing for future measures against Syria and Iran. The more likely scenario at the United Nations is a weaker statement from the Council president.
With North Korea telling reporters that it had begun fueling the rocket, the launching appeared imminent, confronting the Obama administration with a new diplomatic crisis after an agreement that American officials had hoped would open a new chapter with a traditionally hostile and unpredictable nation.
White House officials moved aggressively to deflect criticism of that deal, which offered North Korea food aid in return for a pledge to suspend work on its uranium enrichment program and to allow international inspectors into the country.
Unlike the administration of President George W. Bush, this official said, the Obama administration did not give the North Koreans anything before they violated the agreement by announcing plans to go ahead with the satellite launching. And, he added, the administration expects the North Koreans to abide by the other terms of the deal if it hopes, as it has said, for a fuller diplomatic dialogue.
Still, for President Obama, who prided himself on not falling into the trap of previous presidents in dealing with North Korea, the diplomatic dead end has been a frustrating episode: proof that a change in leadership in Pyongyang has done nothing to change its penchant for flouting United Nations resolutions, paying no heed to its biggest patron, China, and reneging on deals with the United States.
This is an issue that the Romney campaign should be all over. The administration's policy of "strategic patience" followed by "let's make a deal with Kim the Younger" has not worked well. The DPRK highlights the Obama administration's reluctance to talk tough with China and the ways in which its nonproliferation policy seems to be... troubled. This is taking place in the most strategically interesting part of the world. In other words, this is an issue where Obama's record has been radically imperfect and a solid critique should resonate. Sure, there's no magic solution or anything, but attacking Obama on this issue is at least a way for Romney to articulate exactly what he means when he signals his hawkishness.
So let's see how the Romney campaign responds. Disappointingly, North Korea was not even mentioned in the Romney foreign policy team's open letter to Obama, and it's nowhere on Romney's campaign blog. If that doesn't change by the end of this week, then I'll know I don't really need to take his foreign policy pronouncements all that seriously.
I'm daring you, Mitt Romney. I'm double-dog-daring you. Let's see if and your team have got the foreign policy goods or not.
Your humble blogger is currently knee-deep in a pedagogical project on the foundations of economic prosperity. You can imagine my delight, then, that Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a new book coming out on that very topic: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. There's an excerpt in the Montreal Review -- let's see how it opens, shall we?
To understand what these institutions are and what they do, take another society divided by a border. South and North Korea. The people of South Korea have living standards similar to those of Portugal and Spain. To the north, in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea, living standards are akin to those of a sub-Saharan African country, about one tenth of average living standards in South Korea. The health of North Koreans is in an even worse state; the average North Korean can expect to live ten years less than their cousins to the south of the 38th parallel.
These striking differences are not ancient. In fact they did not exist prior to the end of the Second World War. But after 1945 the different governments in the north and the south adopted very different ways of organizing their economies....
It should be no surprise that the economic fortunes of South and North Korea diverged sharply. Kim Il-Sung's command economy soon proved to be a disaster. Detailed statistics are not available from North Korea, which is a secretive state to say the least. Nonetheless, available evidence confirms what we know from the all too often recurring famines: not only did industrial production fail to take off but North Korea in fact experienced a collapse in agricultural productivity. Lack of private property meant that few had incentives to invest or exert effort to increase or even maintain productivity. The stifling repressive regime was inimical to innovation and adoption of new technologies. But Kim Il-Sung, his son and successor, the "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il, and their cronies had no intention to reform the system, or to introduce private property, markets, private contracts, and economic and political freedoms. North Korea continues to stagnate economically, and there is no sign that anything will be different under the new "dear leader" Kim Jong-un.
Meanwhile in the south economic institutions encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians invested in education, achieving high rates of literacy and schooling. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of the relatively educated population, the policies encouraging investment and industrialization, the export markets, and the transfer of technology. South Korea became one of East Asia's `Miracle Economies,' one of the most rapidly growing nations in the world. By the late 1990s, in just about half a century, South Korean growth and North Korean stagnation led to a tenfold gap between the two halves of this once-united country---imagine what a difference a couple centuries could make. The economic disaster of North Korea, which not only prevented growth but led to the starvation of millions, when placed against the South Korean economic success, is striking: neither culture nor geography nor ignorance can explain the divergent paths of North and South Korea....
The contrast of South and North Korea illustrates a general principle: inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth and economic prosperity, while extractive economic institutions generally fail to do so. Property rights are central, since only those who have secure property rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A farmer, for example, who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated or entirely taxed away would have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But extractive economic institutions do exactly that and fail to uphold property rights of workers, farmers, traders and businessmen.
It will not shock you, my dear readers, to learn that I agree with Acemoglu and Robinson. Indeed, as Ezra Klein showed with the following chart, the divergent paths of North and South Korea represents ironclad evidence about the power of instituions to determine prosperity:
Well, that's pretty damn persuasive, isn't it? It seems pretty friggin' obvious which institutions work and which ones don't!
Actually, to be more accurate, it seems pretty friggin' obvious now. Here's another chart that extends that graph back another two decades:
Things look sightly different in this chart. That massive divergence is still there, but what's stunning is that for the 25 years before that, the DPRK and ROK looked exactly the same in terms of per capital income. Indeed, as Nicholas Eberstadt notes:
Around the time of Mao Zedong's death (1976), North Korea was more educated, more productive and (by the measure of international trade per capita) much more open than China. Around that same time, in fact, per capita output in North Korea and South Korea may have been quite similar. Today, North Korea has the awful distinction of being the only literate and urbanized society in human history to suffer mass famine in peacetime.
My point here is not to defend Kim Il Sung or suggest that the DPRK's economic institutions are underrated. Rather, my point is that as data analysts, we're all prisoners of time. Had Acemoglu and Robinson written Why Nations Fail in the mid-1970s, it would have either made a different argument or it would have had a much tougher case to make about the merits of inclusive vs. extractive institutions (during the 1970s, commodity extracting states were looking pretty good).
Keep these charts in mind whenever anyone confidently asserts the obvious superiority of a particular model of political economy. Because, I assure you, there was a point in time when such superiority was far from obvious. And there might be another such point in the future.
One of the drawbacks of being a foreign policy blogger is that it becomes very awkward to avoid discussing international relations events that make the front page for consecutive days. I am therefore duty-bound to comment on Kim Jong Il's death, Kim Jong Un's ascension to leadership, and what it means for North Korea.
Except I have no friggin' clue what will happen.
I am in good company on this total lack of knowledge. I'm bemused by all the U.S. officials anonymously commenting on what Kim Jong Un is like, given that our intelligence on this country is so awesome that Washington didn't know his father was dead until 50 hours after he died, and then only because the North Koreans announced it on television. To be fair, however, it's not like the South Koreans knew either, and some reports I've seen suggest the Chinese were in the dark as well.
Despite the near total lack of information outside of North Korea about North Korea, the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits require I provide at least two predictions per post. So, here's my first prediction, courtesy of Mr. T:
What we do know about the triumvirate of Kim-Jong-Il selected leaders guiding Kim Jong Un into power does not bode well for the North Korean economy. The only bright spot for the DPRK's economy in recent years was a modest step towards private economic activity. The fact that one of them "published articles about the need for the government to curtail market-oriented activity" does not bode well for the per capita income of your average North Korean.
My second prediction is that Kim Jong Un will hold power for longer than any Western analyst expects him to hold power. Most of the pundit chatter has been about the Kim the Youngest's lack of gravitas and the asbsence of sufficient time to groom him as the successor to Kim Jong Il. As I'm hearing this, I keep thinking of Hua Guofeng, Mao's successor. It's an imperfect analogy, but Hua was a relative unknown plucked from obscurity by Mao only a few years before his death. In the end he was outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and his allies, but even Hua managed to stay in power for a few years before that happened, putting down an attempted coup by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.
To use more game-theoretic language, I'm not sure there is a first-mover advantage to any ambitious North Korean challenging Kim the Youngest. Because of that, and because the entire DPRK elite likely fears internal division when concerned about natiional survival, the tyranny of the status quo will likely persist for longer than anyone realizes. Which, unfortunately, in this case, happens to be actual tyranny.
Am I missing anything?
Earlier this week I speculated as to why North Korea did not respond to a series of South Korean military drills. In the list of possibilities I provided, I was somewhat skeptical that Chinese pressure was the answer.
In today's New York Times, however, Mark Landler quotes some Obama administration sources suggesting that Chinese (and Russian) pressure was a determining factor:
after a tense week, when the threat of war hung over the Korean Peninsula, the Obama administration and Beijing seem finally to be on the same page.
Administration officials said the Chinese government had embraced an American plan to press the North to reconcile with the South after its deadly attacks on a South Korean island and a warship. The United States believes the Chinese also worked successfully to curb North Korea’s belligerent behavior.
China’s pressure, several senior officials said this week, might help explain why North Korea did not respond militarily to live-fire drills conducted this week by the South Korean military, when a previous drill drew an artillery barrage from the North that killed two South Korean civilians and two soldiers.
As evidence of the policy shift, officials pointed to recent remarks by China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, in which he urged the North and South “to carry out dialogue and contact.” Previously, Beijing’s response had been to propose an emergency meeting of the six-party group that negotiates with North Korea over its nuclear program, a step the United States opposed as rewarding the North’s aggression....
China swiftly dispatched a senior diplomat to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and officials said he conveyed a strong message about “the unacceptability of attacks and killings of South Koreans,” said a senior American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
“The idea that there could be these one-off provocations without expectation of a military response, as the North had behaved in the past, the Chinese now understand that this is no longer the reality, no longer acceptable,” he said.
John Pomfret hits similar notes in his Washington Post story. Actually, it's an even more optimistic assessment :
The United States and China are closing out the year on a positive note on many fronts - including trade, military ties, climate change and global security - as both sides prepare for their presidents' second summit, set for next month.
After a tense year during which U.S. officials, including President Obama, openly criticized China, and their Chinese counterparts returned the favor, there is a sudden switch in tone from the Commerce Department to the National Security Council. Instead of portraying China as protectionist or as an "enabler" of North Korea's provocations, administration officials are praising China, referring to it again as a responsible partner....
The most remarkable about-face has occurred in the administration's attitude toward China over the Korean Peninsula. Two weeks ago, a senior administration official accused China of creating the conditions that allowed North Korea to start a uranium-enrichment program and launch two deadly attacks on South Korea. The tensions on the peninsula threatened to dominate the summit.
But in recent days, senior administration officials have praised China for pressing North Korea not to react to a South Korean military drill Monday. Officials referred specifically to a visit by China's top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, to North Korea on Dec. 9. After the meeting, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that China and North Korea had reached a "consensus" on the situation on the peninsula - which many analysts interpreted as meaning North Korea had agreed not to provoke South Korea in the short term.
Administration officials also commended China for soft-pedaling a proposal to hold emergency talks between South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States as part of a way to calm the situation. Instead, the officials said that China had accepted a U.S. plan that put improving ties between the South and the North ahead of any multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Administration officials portrayed the United States and China as working in lockstep in dealing with the crisis, which many thought had reached the brink of war last weekend. China continued to urge restraint on North Korea, they said, while the United States worked with Seoul to ensure that its exercises were "firm" but also "non-confrontational and non-escalatory," a senior administration said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Nonetheless, it is not clear whether China's pressure has worked. On Thursday, North Korea threatened to launch a "sacred" nuclear war that would "wipe out" South Korea and the United States if they started a conflict.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington on Jan. 19. Obama visited China in November 2009.
China's approach on the Korean peninsula is certainly interesting, but what I find really interesting is the Obama administration's conscious decision to talk about this to the Times and Post. Part of this might be the warming up of relations that traditionally precedes a great power summit. Part of it, however, might be the administration's effort to signal to their Chinese counterparts that they understand that Beijing has engaged in a policy shift -- and the Obama administraion genuinely appreciates that shift.
This point is likely
banal obvious to longtime foreign policy hands, but I bring it up in the context of the Wikileaks cables. The attention paid to these diplomatic cables can lead to the impression that all diplomacy that matters is conducted in secret corridors. This kind of coordinated official leaking, however, is the bread and butter of 20th and 21st century statecraft -- and it's not going away anytime soon.
Well, it was a very exciting weekend on the Korea peninsula, as South Korea vowed to go ahead with live-fire artillery exercises on Yeonpyeong Island, site of the artillery exchange between ROK and DPRK earlier this month. North Korea vowed to retaliate, the U.N. Security Council met all day yesterday without any agreement on the matter, Seoul recommended island residents go to bunkers, and everyone urged restraint by everyone else.
Very exciting!! How would today's exercise play out? Mark McDonald and Martin Fackler report for the New York Times:
Defying North Korean threats of violent retaliation and "brutal consequences beyond imagination," South Korea on Monday staged live-fire artillery drills on an island shelled last month by the North.
The immediate response from Pyongyang was surprisingly muted, however. A statement from the North's official news agency Monday night said it was "not worth reacting" to the exercise.
"Maybe we had a little impact," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who as an unofficial American envoy was in Pyongyang when the drills ended. Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said earlier that the North had offered concessions on its nuclear program, including a resumption of visits by United Nations inspectors.
Wait, that's it? Pyongyang issues threat after threat and then claims the whole thing isn't worth their bother? Let's dig a little deeper into the Times story:
The question now is whether the North will make good on its promises to retaliate, and how it might do so. Mr. Lankov, the analyst, said he did not expect a massive response by Pyongyang because the recent incidents are part of a North Korean "strategy of tensions," meaning that North Korean leaders want to choose when and where to strike.
"I do not think the North Koreans will do much this time," Mr. Lankov said. "They'd rather deliver a new blow later when they will be ready. But the maneuvers still mean a great risk of escalation."
Meanwhile, Mr. Richardson said the North had agreed to concessions related to its nuclear program, a main source of tension on the peninsula. A former United States special envoy to North Korea, Mr. Richardson was on an unofficial trip approved by the State Department. He met with high-ranking military officials, the North Korean vice president and members of the Foreign Ministry over four days.
Mr. Richardson said the North had made two significant concessions toward reopening six-party talks on the country's nuclear program. The North's proposal would allow United Nations nuclear inspectors back into the Yongbyon nuclear complex to ensure that it is not producing enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. The North recently showed an American nuclear expert a new and stunningly sophisticated facility there. It expelled international inspectors last year.
North Korean officials also told Mr. Richardson that their government was willing to sell 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to South Korea, removing bomb-making material from the North, he said. "I would describe this as important progress," he said of the concessions.
So now North Korea also wants to restart the Six-Party Talks? What just happened? As always, trying to explain North Korean behavior is a challenging task. Here are some possible explanations:
1) North Korea finally got caught bluffing. True, they have the least to lose from the ratcheting up of tensions, but that doesn't mean they have nothing to lose from a military escalation with the ROK. The past month of tensions got everyone's attention, and North Korea is only happy when everyone else is paying attention to them.
2) Kim Jong Un was busy. One of the stronger explanations for the DPRK's last round of provocations was that this was an attempt to bolster Kim the Younger's military bona fides before the transition. Reading up on what little is out there, it wouldn't shock me if he planned all of this and then postponed any retaliation because he'd organized a Wii Bowling tournament among his entourage.
Somewhat more seriously, it's possible that there are domestic divisions between the military, the Foreign Ministry, and the Workers Party, and that the latter two groups vetoed further escalation.
3) China put the screws on North Korea. For all the talk about juche, North Korea needs external aid to function, and over the past year all the aid lifelines have started to dry up -- except for Beijing. As much as the North Koreans might resent this relationship -- and they do -- if Beijing leaned hard on Pyongyang,
4) North Korea gave the ROK government the domestic victory it needed. Bear with me for a second. The shelling incident has resulted in a sea change in South Korean public opinion, to the point where Lee Myung-bak was catching hell for not responding more aggressively to the initial provocation. This is a complete 180 from how the ROK public reacted to the Cheonan incident, in which Lee caught hell for responding too aggressively.
Lee clearly felt domestic pressure to do something. Maybe, just maybe, the North Korean leadership realized this fact, and believed that not acting now would give Lee the domestic victory he needed to walk back his own brinksmanship.
5) Overnight, the DPRK military hired the New York Giants coaching staff to contain South Korean provocations. Let's see... a dazzling series of perceived propaganda victories, followed by the pervasive sense that they held all the cards in this latest contretemps. Then an inexplicable decision not to do anything aggressive at the last minute, after which containment policies fail miserably. Hmmm… you have to admit, this MO sounds awfully familiar.
If I had to make a semi-informed guess -- and it's just that - I'd wager a combination of (1) and (4).
Alternative explanations welcomed in the comments.
There's going to be a lot of scholars, policy analysts and enthused amateurs who are going to drink up the Wikileaks documents as a great new empirical resource. So they should -- they did nothing to cause their release, and these are documents that ordinarily would have taken 25 years minimum to be declassified.
That said, there's going to be a natural inclination to think that any Wikileaks document will endow it with the totemic value of Absolute Truth. "If it was secret, then it must be true," goes this logic. That's a more serious problem. For Exhibit A, let's go to Simon Tisdall of The Guardian's interpreting what the Wikileaks documents reveal about how China views North Korea:
China has signaled its readiness to accept Korean reunification and is privately distancing itself from the North Korean regime, according to leaked US embassy cables that reveal senior Beijing figures regard their official ally as a "spoiled child"....
The leaked North Korea dispatches detail how:
In highly sensitive discussions in February this year, the-then South Korean vice-foreign minister, Chun Yung-woo, told a US ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that younger generation Chinese Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally and would not risk renewed armed conflict on the peninsula, according to a secret cable to Washington.
Ah, OK, this explains why China has slowly distanced itself from North Korea's recent actions. Oh, wait, I'm sorry, China has done nothing of the sort.
I don't doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are... er.... diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I'm sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.
The key is to determine whether China's actions reflect their words. And over the past six months, China has not acted in a manner consistent with Tisdall's claims.
This is not to imply that China is acting in a particularly perfidious or underhanded manner, by the way. They're acting like any great power would -- stall for time while trying to figure out the best way to handle a troublesome ally. The point is, just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so.
North Korea has spent the past week demanding that someone pay attention to them. In response, online policy recommendations have ranged from Thomas P.M. Barnett's doubling down on strategic patience to Glenn Reynolds recommendation that the U.S. nuke North Korea "if they start anything."
The IR wing of the blogosphere is pretty pessimistic about the current situation. Rob Farley concludes:
North Korean behavior has vexed Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. The difficulty doesn't lie with the delusions or incompetence of any American administration, although the United States has suffered from its fair share of both. Rather, reaching a conclusive agreement with North Korea is simply beyond the capabilities of the United States. Under current circumstances, North Korea cannot be "solved"; it can only be managed.
In a follow-up post, Farley is even more pessimistic:
The best we can do now is hope for change internal to North Korea, which need not necessarily take the form of full-scale regime change. I suspect that Kim Jong Il needs to be dead before any meaningful change can happen, not necessarily because he’s particularly crazy or irrational, but rather because the impending succession crisis makes any diplomatic maneuver more difficult for North Korea. I should hasten to add that I don’t support military action in the service of regime change; the costs are virtually incalculable. I do think that military response is one necessary managerial tool for the relationship, but it is critically important that any response to specific provocations is measured, limited, and spearheaded by South Korea.
Dan Nexon looks at the strategic calculus and concludes that escalation won't happen:
[N]one of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:
a) Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea's economy;
b) The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;
c) Uncertainty surrounding Beijing's likely actions in the event of a conflict; and
d) The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war.
These four factors--two of which aren't particularly manipulable--make significant escalation unlikely.
Erik Voeten notes that if the reason for the current dust-ups are internal rather than external, then escalation would be a bad move:
If this is a provocation as usual, then new negotiations and concessions may "work" in the sense that they will quiet the North Koreans until they feel the need to provoke again. If [Victor] Cha is right, then the North Korean leadership may actually want to see a limited military response that they can defend themselves against in some heroic fashion.
Finally, here at FP, both Michael Green and Steve Walt recommend that the U.S.not play into Pyongyang's hands by overreaqcting, and try reach some accord with China over what to do with the preoblem child of Northeast Asia. Aidan Foster-Carter argues that... er... well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what he's arguing. He starts by saying that there's no way Beijing is going to rein in its bestest ally, but then he observes that since China is North Korea's only ally, "if [North Korea's leaders] have an ounce of sense, they must know the old game is up. Militant mendicancy won't cut it any more; no one will buy that old horse again." So damned if I know what he's saying.
Speaking for myself, the artillery barrage, although scary, is not what scares me about the stituation. No, the guided tour of their new light water nuclear reactor facility is the real game-changer on the Korean penunsula, because it undercuts the U.S. policy of strategic patience. See, 18 months ago, I wrote:
I think maybe, just maybe, the international community has found a status quo that makes the North Koreans less comfortable than everyone else. Assuming that the interdiction and sanctions regime works well -- which is a robust but not entirely unreasonable assumption -- then North Korea gets nothing for thumbing its nose at the world except some more weapons-grade fissile material.
That's not nothing, but it's not all that much either. Pyongyang already has a deterrent to prevent invasion. It can't threaten nuclear blackmail all that persuasively, because it's a pretty hollow threat on their part. And if they can't sell their technology to other countries, then there's no profit in it for them either. Which means they're stuck, wallowing in their own barren dirt.
The fast development of a light-water reactor -- during a period when the DPRK leadership has been kinda busy with an uncertain leadership transition -- changes the strategic calculus. It suggests that North Korea has not been contained; instrad, Pyongyang has been able to ramp up a technologically sophisticated prograqm during the time period when that task should have been fantastically difficult.
How did this happen? At least one of the following things must be true:
1) North Korea has developed an indigenous group of nuclear researchers with sufficient brainpower and access to resources to move forward in the nuclear arena;
2) Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the sanctions/interdiction regime is leaking like a sieve.
3) Elements of the Chinese leadership are saying "f*** it" and assisting the DPRK in their nuclear program.
4) The entire Chinese leadership is saying "f*** it" and assisting the DPRK in their nuclear program.
If (1) or (4) are the problems, they can't be fixed. North Korea won't stop, and telling the Chinese to act contrary to their own perceived interest isn't a viable strategy. I'm not really sure that (2) is the problem, but ramping up Proliferation Security Initiative efforts does force Beijing to sit up and pay notice, since it really means a lot more unfriendly warships in its backyard, which might affect (3) or (4). It probably won't cause the Chinese to change their mind, however. (3) might be fixable, but I doubt it. Beijing's slow-motion response to the latest contretemps suggests that if the problem is a divided foreign policy leadership in Beijing, then it's a problem that won't be going away anytime soon. Meanwhile, the sanctions regime will falter.
So, for now, I'd advocate increasing the PSI presence surrounding North Korea while demonstrating a receptivity to talks if/when Pyongyang drops the brinksmanship routine. Very reluctantly, I'm beginning to wonder if it's time to call the North Koreans in their game of Crazy No Limit Texas Hold 'Em. Voeten hypothesizes that a low-level military attack would be just the thing Kim the Older would need to boost support for Kim the Younger. A more costly military attack -- say, the Yongbyon facility -- might have the reverse effect, however.
Of course, the problem with that option is that the North Koreans could respond by ramping up the retaliation. This is why I'm only beginning to wonder about this possibility. There really is a point, however, after which Pyongyang doesn't want this to escalate -- because in an all-out war, North Korea really does lose.
The question is whether that point can be located without a Second Korean War breaking out as a result. That risk is what gives me serious pause about considering any military option.
Increasingly, however, I don't think the status quo can hold.
Brilliant and original policy ideas are welcomed in the comments section.
One of my favorite passages of fiction comes from Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian 'chinanto/mnigs' which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan 'tzjin-anthony-ks' which kill cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.
What can be made of this fact? It exists in total isolation. As far as any theory of structural linguistics is concerned it is right off the graph, and yet it persists. Old structural linguists get very angry when young structural linguists go on about it. Young structural linguists get deeply excited about it and stay up late at night convinced that they are very close to something of profound importance, and end up becoming old structural linguists before their time, getting very angry with the young ones. Structural linguistics is a bitterly divided and unhappy discipline, and a large number of its practitioners spend too many nights drowning their problems in Ouisghian Zodahs.
As someone in transition from being a young structural IR theorist to an old one, I've now seen enough to recognize when certain patterns begin to recur. For example, I've now read enough articles about the North Korea's Worker Party Congress to know the following:
1) This was a Very Big Deal
2) Kim Jong Il's family got some promotions
And after reading all of this, I can now state with confidence the following: no one knows exactly what the f*** is going to happen in North Korea once Kim Jong Il dies. There are plausible stories that can be spun any which way. But no one really knows.
I hereby encourage all young political scientists to get excited about this Party Congress and convince me that something very important and of profound significance was revealed in the past 48 hours.
I think it's safe to say that Venezuela's economy has seen better days. The government has been issuing something that looks an awful lot like food rationing cards. Now the Financial Times' Benedict Mander reports that Venezuela's new currency controls are affecting its import sector in a really sensitive area:
Unable to access enough dollars, local importers are feeling the pinch across a wide range of goods, from Scotch whisky, the nation’s favourite drink, to luxury foods and swanky cars....
Each month, whisky importers – some of the worst hit – say they can legally get only as much foreign currency as they would normally use in a day. Bars and restaurants fear the reaction when they run dry. “We’ve got enough boxes to last a few more weeks, but after that, I’m worried about what will happen,” said the manager of one bar.
The irony, of course, is that Venezuela is doing to itself what the United States has been trying to do to North Korea for years (and re-emphasized in the past few months) -- denying access to luxury goods for the elites.
Let's call these kind of measures Mad Men sanctions, shall we? Anything that embargoes sumptuous indulgences -- including alcohol, cigarettes, and Christina Hendricks -- counts as a Mad Men sanction. The question is, whether self-imposed or externally imposed, do they make a difference?
With respect to North Korea, I think the answer is pretty clearly no. This is mildly surprising. Even though I'm pretty skeptical about these kind of sanctions in general, the DPRK is one of the few countries where Mad Men sanctions truly are "smart." The North Korean elite leads a very segmented life, and making it harder to get Johnny Walker Blue affects very few average North Koreans. That said, while the North Korean elite appears to be tottering just a little, it's not because they're going into Scotch withdrawal.
Of course, there is a difference between an external actor imposing a Mad Men embargo and an internal actor screwing up the economy to the point that a petrostate needs to husband foreign exchange reserves. For IR grad students out there, it's a good test: is a regime hurt more from an externaly-created embargo or from an internally-created one?
[And what about the IR effects of Christina Hendricks?--ed. Definitely a question that begs for further research. Dibs!!--ed.]
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Belvedere Vodka
One of the glib jokes I like to make is that one country in the world needs to maintain a communist, centrally-planned economic structure. This would serve as a public service warning to future generations of policymakers. Some of them would inevitably romanticize prior communist efforts as noble in their aspirations and unfairly maligned by the capitalist writers of history. At that point, you get on a plane and fly them to the Last Remaining Communist Country in the World to show them just how bad real life can be.
My nominee for this country was always North Korea. China's economy doesn't really fit Stalinist dicta anymore; neither does Vietnam. And keeping Cuba as a communist country is just a fabulous waste of culture and resources. No, North Korea seemed to be the ideal museum of blinkered economic thinking.
After reading Sharon LaFraniere's heartbreaking front-page story in the New York Times about North Korea today, however, such jokes ring a little hollow:
North Koreans are used to struggle and heartbreak. But the Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.
Interviews in the past month with eight North Koreans who recently left their country — a prison escapee, illegal traders, people in temporary exile to find work in China, the traveling wife of an official in the ruling Workers’ Party — paint a haunting portrait of desperation inside North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, and of growing resentment toward its erratic leader, Kim Jong-Il.
What seems missing — for now, at least — is social instability. Widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation and growing political uncertainty as Mr. Kim seeks to install his third son as his successor have not hardened into noticeable resistance against the government. At least two of those interviewed in China hewed to the official propaganda line that North Korea was a victim of die-hard enemies, its impoverishment a Western plot, its survival threatened by the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
South Korea’s charge that North Korea sank one of its warships, the Cheonan, in March was just part of the plot, the party official’s wife said.
“That’s why we have weapons to protect ourselves,” she said while visiting relatives in northern China — and earning spare cash as a waitress. “Our enemies are trying to hit us from all sides, and that’s why we lack electricity and good infrastructure. North Korea must keep its doors locked.” (emphasis added)
The emphasized part is what gets me. The party official's wife -- presumably, one of the DPRK's elite -- has to work as a waitress to earn extra income.
None of this is news. Marcus Noland wrote about this here at FP.com back in March. For a more detailed analysis, see his Peterson Institute for International Economics' brief with Stephan Haggard. The highlights from that brief:
Respondents portray a judicial and penal system characterized by high rates of arbitrary detention and release. Horrific abuses are characteristic not only of the camps for political prisoners, but are found at all levels of the penal system. In the survey of more than 1,300 refugees conducted in China between August 2004 and September 2005, nearly 10 percent reported incarceration in political and correctional detention facilities. Among this group, 90 percent reported witnessing forced starvation, 60 percent deaths due to beating or torture, and 27 percent executions. These findings are broadly confirmed by a second survey of 300 refugees conducted in South Korea in November 2008, which also included more detailed questions about initial arrest and detention, the types of facilities in which respondents were held, and the conditions they witnessed while incarcerated.
The emerging portrait of the North Korean penal system suggests a vast machine that processes large numbers of people engaged in illicit activities for relatively short periods, but which exposes them to terrible abuses while incarcerated. This pattern serves to effectively intimidate; our surveys reveal an atomized society in which barriers to collective action are high and overt political opposition minimal. However, repression has not served to eliminate market-oriented activity, in part because of the continuing poor economic performance of the regime. Rather, our surveys suggest a changing political economy in which corrupt officials extract bribes from those in the market, exploiting their ability to limit entanglement with a brutal penal system.
There is another simple reason why a social revolution is unlikely to topple the North Korean regime -- starving people might lack the energy to do anything other than search for something to eat.
Developing... in the most depressing manner possible.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
My latest diavlog is with
the man in the black hat LGM's Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally. One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea's government played things pretty damn well. The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately. They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes. They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week.
And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with... a trouncing at the ballot box:
South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.
According to preliminary results on Thursday, the leftwing Democratic party confounded opinion polls to win seven mayoral or gubernatorial seats, compared with just six for Mr Lee’s Grand National party. The ruling conservatives narrowly held the mayoral seat in Seoul, where the challenger had styled herself as the “peace” candidate. Her campaign slogan was: “The last chance against war”
South Korean voters regularly punish governments in mid-term polls, but some of Thursday’s results sent shockwaves through political circles and prompted the leader of the ruling party to resign.
The Democratic party won the eastern province of Gangwon-do, on the border with North Korea, for the first time in 16 years.
In its campaign, the opposition had condemned Mr Lee for risking war by taking too hard a line against the North, despite the death of 46 sailors in March in the alleged torpedo attack on the Cheonan corvette. Two previous liberal presidents had engaged in a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North, which Mr Lee ended.
What does this mean for the future? Unfortunately, more North Korean provocations.
As Kenneth Schultz demonstrated in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, opposition parties can send a powerful signal in world politics. If they go against the ruling party in a crisis, it signals the domestic vulnerability that these governments will face if a crisis escalates. The lesson that North Korea will draw from this electoral outcome is that it can engage in further provocations and the Lee government will be forced by its own domestic constraints to act in a more conciliatory manner.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Ben Smith reports that China is facing mounting pressure because of its refusal to condemn North Korea for its sinking of the Cheonan:
Oh, wait, you know what? I might have mixed up some of the words in that cut and paste. Here's the original:
With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.
Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.
The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked... they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.
Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.
This is serious, because you have people like Jim Henley minimizing the threat to Israel:
Israel not only no longer faces any enemies who pose an existential threat, it doesn’t even have enemies who can thwart any strongly held Israeli policy aim. No state is going to go to war to “destroy Israel.” I doubt any state particularly wants to. Certainly no state that might want to can do so. But beyond that, no state is going to go to war on behalf of the Palestinians and the Palestinians lack the power to launch an effective war on their own behalf.
Henley is correct about the current military balance of power, but the notion that Israel has no existential threats to worry about is absurd. The people who control Gaza don't recognize Israel's right to exist, and there's a government in the region that keeps talking about wanting to wipe the country off the face of the map. They're not powerful enough at present to take action -- but that hardly means that they won't take such action in the future should they acquire greater capabilities.
This creates a vicious circle with regard to the emphasis on liberty of action, since the IDF's deterrence is no longer based on its Entebbe-era veneer of Mission Impossible-like efficiency, but rather on the knowledge that the Israeli government is willing to use overwhelming and disproportionate force against all provocations, regardless of their threat level.
In conclusion, I agree with an awful lot of what Max Boot says on this:
Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea. Come to think of it, even South Africa couldn’t afford to become South Africa: an international pariah regime. It was too democratic and too Western to bear such isolation indefinitely in the way that absolute dictatorships like Burma or North Korea can. The international embargo ultimately led to a crisis of confidence within Afrikaner leadership circles and to the negotiated end to the racist regime. Israel, I stress, is no South Africa: it is not an apartheid regime. It is in fact the most liberal and democratic regime in the region, offering Arabs more rights than they are offered in any of its immediate neighbors. And Israel is, mercifully, not yet subject to the kind of international opprobrium that South Africa (rightly) received. Unfortunately, it is heading in that direction....
That doesn’t mean [Israel] should refrain from legitimate acts of self-defense (such as killing Hamas big shots or retaliating for Hamas rocket strikes), but it should be ultra careful to manage public perceptions of its actions. Unfortunately, the Israeli Defense Forces have always shown more competence at tactical kinetic operations than at information operations. That deficiency was revealed during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and now more recently in the botched raid on the Gaza ships. Granted, Israel is getting better about managing the consequences of its actions; the IDF gets kudos for posting video of the raid online quickly and making some naval commandos available for interviews. But if Israel were strategically smarter, it would have avoided the raid altogether, with all the possibilities of something going wrong, and used more stealthy means to prevent the Hamas activists from reaching their objective. The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.
Developing.... in a precipitously bad way for Israel.
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is up, with UMass Amherst's Charli Carpenter. We talk about what's going to happen and what should happen on the Korean peninsula (click here for more on Carpenter's take), the National Security Strategy, and whether it's OK to target Americans overseas.
Here's a fun exercise -- see if you can detect the moment when Charli and I switch hawk and dove positions. It's a tricky maneuver!
There are two ways to understand the current dynamics playing out on the Korean peninsula.
First, everything you need to know about the standoff on the Korean peninsula is encapsulated in this James Blitz analysis in the Financial Times:
[O]n one point there is broad agreement: military conflict between North and South would have unimaginable consequences, in terms of fatalities and economic devastation.
A range of factors have long convinced military strategists that war is pretty much unthinkable, however unpleasant the rhetoric may get.
For North Korea, the fundamental risk of any conflict is that it would almost certainly lose, given its conventional military weakness. For South Korea, the risk is that while it might ultimately win, it would suffer immense casualties.
Second, in an expert display of connecting any international relations crisis to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps [I'm pretty sure that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon covers something different?!--ed. Well, it works for IR flashpoints too!!] you can learn the fine art of playing Chicken by watching the tractor fight sequence from Footloose:
This has been North Korea's bargaining advantage for decades -- everyone else in the world thinks they're crazy enough to stay on the tractor. This means that the rational thing to do is to get off the tractor, which translates into granting them concessions.
Alas, Kevin Bacon doesn't explain everything under the sun in international relations. As Christian Oliver explains in the FT, there are many possible explanations for the Cheonan incident, and some of them involve internal discord in the Hermit Kingdom. Paradoxically, as Thomas Schelling explained oh so many decades ago, sometimes domestic weaknesses can be parlayed into international strength.
This puts South Korea in a big bind. So long as China is reluctant to sanction North Korea -- and they're very reluctant to do this -- Seoul either needs to out-crazy Pyongyang or come up with a punishment that hurts North Korea without escalating military tensions.
So my suggestion, based on this Reuters backgrounder, would be to either ban broadcasts of the 2010 World Cup tournament in North Korea, or even better, ban North Korea's side from participation in the tournament due to start next month. There is precedent for this: Yugoslavia was barred from participating in the 1994 World Cup because of ongoing United Nations sanctions. It's also a sanction that would not benefit any internal hardliners responsible for the Cheonan.
I confess I'm grasping at straws here -- I'm holding out for a hero who can solve this policy conundrum. Readers are encouraged to offer their own policy suggestions in the comments.
NSN's Heather Hurlburt and I did a bloggingheads diavlog earlier today -- and it's been posted in record time . Topics include Greece, the European Union, the vagaries of the bond market, my surprising sympathy for Gordon Brown, and the Korea kerfuffle. Enjoy!
Mom!! Dad!! Kids!! Want to go somewhere fun for the winter, but tired of the same old vacation destinations?
Have I got the place for you!! Try.... Pyongyang!!
North Korea will allow more tourists from its arch-foe the US to visit this year, seeking alternative sources of hard currency as sanctions bite deeper.
North Korea at present allows US groups to visit only for the Arirang mass games, when tens of thousands of impeccably choreographed gymnasts and performers create colourful mosaics and slogans with painted cards. This year, the shows are scheduled to begin in August.
However, Pyongyang has said that it will also allow visits throughout the rest of the year, according to Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours. Koryo, which says it escorts about 80 per cent of US travellers, was informed of the decision by its local partner in North Korea, he said. Koryo took about 280 US visitors into the country last year.
Somewhat more seriously, this appears to be one of several small signs that the regime in Pyongyang is not quite as secure as it used to be:
Further denting Pyongyang’s dollar income, Thai authorities last month detained an aircraft packed with arms being smuggled from Pyongyang. Diplomats saw this as a severe threat to the cash flow of Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader. Reports from defectors also suggest a recent currency redenomination has caused economic chaos during a bitter winter.
In a very rare admission that the country needed to improve its economic record, Mr Kim this month confessed that the nation had failed to deliver “rice and meat soup” to the people. He vowed to improve people's lives.
Just so I'm clear on this, in the past two months there have been protests in North Korea, and the country's leader has publicly admitted being unable to feed the country.
This is still the DPRK we're talking about, right?
Two articles worth reading this AM:
1. Ali Ansari's history of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in The National Interest. Ansari explains exactly how the IRGC has become intermeshed with the Iranian economy, and what that means going forward. His key point: it's not about the ideology anymore:
Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.
2. Blaine Harden's Washington Post story on the fallout from North Korean protests of the government's controversial currency reform last month. Yes, you read that correctly, North Korean protests. The good parts:
Grass-roots anger and a reported riot in an eastern coastal city pressured the government to amend its confiscatory policy. Exchange limits have been eased, allowing individuals to possess more cash.
The currency episode reveals new constraints on Kim's power and may signal a fundamental change in the operation of what is often called the world's most repressive state. The change is driven by private markets that now feed and employ half the country's 23.5 million people, and appear to have grown too big and too important to be crushed, even by a leader who loathes them....
The currency episode seems far from over, and there have been indications that Kim still has the stomach for using deadly force.
There have been public executions and reinforcements have been dispatched to the Chinese border to stop possible mass defections, according to reports in Seoul-based newspapers and aid groups with informants in the North.
Still, analysts say there has also been evidence of unexpected shifts in the limits of Kim's authority.
"The private markets have created a new power elite," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "They pay bribes to bureaucrats in Kim's government, and they are a threat that is not going away."
Why did something like this take 40 years? This is an overdetermined answer, but I have to think that the DPRK leadership has become so materially impoverished that North Koreans with ambition have decided that they are better off going outside the syatem rather than trying to achieve a bureaucratic sinecure.
The common thread in both stories? Ideological zeal only takes you so far, even in a totalitarian society. Market forces will worm their way into even the most theocratic or communist societies. What will be interesting is how those getting rich will respond to political instability, even as they have profted from the existing rules of the game.
my boss U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth arrives in Pyongyang, I think it's worth noting that the North Korean government has not been endearing itself to its citizenry. Hmmm... let me rephrase that -- the DPRK government has been acting with even more disregard fo its citizens than usual.
The nub of the problem has been a currency revaluation/reform in which North Korean citizens will be forced to trade in their old notes for new ones -- and each citizen is limited in the amount they can exchange. This move was designed to do two things: lopping off a few zeroes of the North Korean won, and flushing out private traders along the Chinese border who are sitting on currency notes that will soon be worthless.
It appears, according to AFP, that the DPRK regime has finally come up with a move that actually roils their population:
Amid reports that some frustrated residents have been torching old bills, South Korean aid group Good Friends said authorities have threatened severe punishment for such an action.
Many residents would burn worthless old bills rather than surrender them to authorities, in order to avoid arousing suspicions about how they made the money, Good Friends said.
The banknotes carry portraits of founding president Kim Il-Sung and his successor and son Kim Jong-Il. Defacing their images is treated as a felony.
With nascent private markets for food collapsing because of the currency reform, citizens are finding it difficult to obtain basic staples. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization is already projecting another grain shortage for the country.
Over at the U.S. Institute for Peace, John S. Park does a nice job of explaining the political economy effects of this currency move:
As North Korean people in key market-active regions benefited from growing commercial interactions, low- to high-level DPRK officials figured out ways to get a cut of the money made. These officials used most of these bribes (viewed by traders as a "cost of doing business") to line their own pockets, but also used a portion of these for their respective organization's operating budget. With less to skim from the markets due to this revaluation, these officials will have funding gaps to fill. Given that these officials also enjoyed a higher standard of living, the discontent of the North Korean people will be aligned with these "skimming" officials. New groups of losers from this revaluation may be more advanced and better organized than protesters during previous periods of government-initiated economic and currency reforms....
If the DPRK government had improved and restored the inconsistent Public Distribution System and other public services on a national basis (a massive undertaking), a revaluation may have triggered greater state control by minimizing the benefits from the non-formal market system and making the North Korean people dependent on the state again. It does not appear that the DPRK government has improved these national systems. In an apparent effort to restore discipline through this revaluation, the DPRK government may have initiated a period of economic, social, and political destabilization by undermining a widely used coping mechanism for the people, as well as a growing number of officials.
[So a buckling DPRK regime is a good thing, right?--ed.] From a nonproliferation perspective, not so much, no.
Any domestic instability in North Korea is bad for Bosworth, the Six-Party Talks, and nonproliferation efforts in general. The June uprisings in Iran have led the Iranian regime to adopt a more hardline position on the nuclear issue, both to bolster the conservative base and engage in "rally round the flag" efforts. I see no reason why this logic would not apply to North Korea as well -- indeed, domestic instability is the likely explanation for Pyongyang's bellicose behavior earlier this year.
Developing.... in a very disturbing way.
UPDATE: My FP colleague Tom Ricks has more.
The Financial Times' Simeon Kerr and Harvey Morris report on one of those stories that the Bush administration would have killed for about, oh, seven years ago:
The United Arab Emirates has seized a ship secretly carrying embargoed North Korean arms to Iran, say diplomats.
The interception comes at a sensitive time. North Korea has invited the US for bilateral talks on nuclear issues and the UN Security Council’s western members are pressing for greater Iranian co-operation over its nuclear programme.
The UAE has reported the seizure of the vessel to the UN sanctions committee responsible for vetting the implementation of measures, including an arms embargo, imposed against North Korea under Security Council resolution 1874, according to diplomats in New York. The committee, chaired by Turkey, has made no formal announcement about the case.
Diplomats at the UN identified the vessel as the Bahamian-flagged ANL-Australia. The vessel was seized some weeks ago. The UN sanctions committee has written to the Iranian and North Korean governments pointing out that the shipment puts them in violation of UN resolution 1974.
The authorities seized “military components”, but the vessel has since departed, a person familiar with UAE thinking said. The seizure took place in the UAE, but not the shipping hub of Dubai, the person added.
So, in the past two years, North Korea has been linked to arms build-ups in Syria, Myanmar, and Iran.
Come to think of it, maybe it's not an Axis of Evil so much as North Korea desperately trying to export the one thing they make that has market value.
Reports like these are actually good news, I suspect. It suggests that the enhanced sanctions regime is making it tougher for North Korea to export its ilicit wares. Which means that the status quo favors the other members of the Six-Party Talks more than it favors Pyongyang.
Gosh, maybe there's something to this containment idea.
UPDATE: More info on the shipment itself here.
You'd think I would have something very deep to say about former President Clinton's recent excursion to Pyongyang to secure the release of two U.S. journalists. Well, I have four reactions, but I'm not sure how deep they are:
Foreign policy should be conducted free of emotion, so I'm hoping that this feeling will fade fast. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who had this reaction, however. I'm therefoe betting that beyond providing fodder for Maureen Dowd during the dog days of August, this little rescue mission is going to complicate nuclear diplomacy with North Korea for a spell.
Well, Glenn Kessler's rundown on what's happeing in Phuket is rich with blog-worthy goodness:
The war of words between North Korea and the United States escalated Thursday, with North Korea's Foreign Ministry lashing out at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in unusually personal terms for "vulgar remarks" that it said demonstrated "she is by no means intelligent."
Clinton, who earlier this week likened North Korea to an unruly child, has rallied international isolation of North Korea at a 27-member regional security forum here. She met with her Russian, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese counterparts -- the other key partners in suspended six-nation disarmament talks--and won strong statements of support from many delegations....
The Foreign Ministry statement attacking Clinton also amply demonstrated the North Korean mood. "We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, according to North Korean media. "Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."
The fit of pique was apparently inspired by an interview Clinton gave ABC News while visiting New Delhi.
"What we've seen is this constant demand for attention [from North Korea]," Clinton said. "And maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention -- don't give it to them, they don't deserve it, they are acting out." (emphases added)
Some random thoughts:
1. If I'm Chelsea Clinton, I'd be pretty cheesed off right now. I never thought of her as particularly "unruly," but what other teenagers has Hillary spent time with? [Cough, cough!!--ed. Oh... right.]
2. You have to give the North Koreans major chutzpah points for accusing other countries of being "unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community." [UPDATE: As Rob Farley puts it, "the Nork rhetoric vaguely reminds me of Daily Kos threads from the early days of the 2008 Democratic primary."]
3. It's worth pointing out that we're now in a place where the Bush administration look positively dovish on North Korea compared to the Obama administration. Here's another way of looking at it: Both Dick Cheney and John Bolton are more comfortable with the Obama administration's Nort Korea policy than Bush administration's. Think about that for a second.
4. A related point -- remember how the Bush administration got pilloried for refusing to talk with Iran, arguing that doing so would confer a reward on the regime? Kessler quotes Clinton as saying, with regard to the Six-Party Talks: "We are open to talks with North Korea. But we are not interested in half measures. We do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table." Now there is a difference between this position and that of the Bush administration vis-à-vis Iran -- but it's not nearly as big a difference as Obama defenders are likely to claim.
5. What's the end game in all of this? I think maybe, just maybe, the international community has found a status quo that makes the North Koreans less comfortable than everyone else. Assuming that the interdiction and sanctions regime works well -- which is a robust but not entirely unreasonable assumption -- then North Korea gets nothing for thumbing its nose at the world except some more weapons-grade fissile material.
That's not nothing, but it's not all that much either. Pyongyang already has a deterrent to prevent invasion. It can't threaten nuclear blackmail all that persuasively, because it's a pretty hollow threat on their part. And if they can't sell their technology to other countries, then there's no profit in it for them either. Which means they're stuck, wallowing in their own barren dirt, feeling very, very lonely.
Am I missing anything?
A few days ago Gideon Rachman had a sharp column in the Financial Times about the limits to Barack Obama's "soft power" approach:
Mr Bush had a shoe thrown at him in his last appearance in the Middle East. So if Mr Obama receives his customary standing ovation in Cairo, that will send a powerful symbolic message. But the president should not let the applause go to his head. Even if his speech is a success, the same foreign-policy problems will be sitting in his in-tray when he gets back to the Oval Office – and they will be just as dangerous as before....
The president’s charisma and rhetorical skill are real diplomatic assets. If Mr Obama can deploy them to improve America’s image and influence around the world, that is all to the good. There is nothing wrong with trying to re-build American “soft power”.
The danger is more subtle. It is that President Yes-we-can has raised exaggerated hopes about the pay-off from engagement and diplomacy. In the coming months it will become increasingly obvious that soft power also has its limits.
I don't disagree with much of what Rachman says here, but there's a sin of omission that is worth pointing out. One of the advantages of Barack Obama's popularity is pretty plain -- he gets to say things that, in another man's voice, would sound unbelievably arrogant.
For exhibit A, let's stroll over to Tom Friedman's column today, which Friedman petty much outsources to Obama himself:
“We have a joke around the White House,” the president said. “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”
A key part of his message, he said, will be: “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.” He then explained: “There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it.” There are a lot of Israelis, “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”
There are a lot of Palestinians who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not delivered a single “benefit to their people and had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground” they would be much better off today — but they won’t say it aloud.
“There are a lot of Arab states that have not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery,” and when it comes to “ponying up” money to actually help the Palestinian people, they are “not forthcoming.”
When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people.”
Now, imagine that George W. Bush had said the exact same things to Friedman a year ago (not that much of a stretch, actually). He would have been crucified for delivering such a high-handed, arrogant, imperious lecture. Obama, apparently, can get away with it -- if he could, I bet Obama's advance team would have a workplace-safety sign behind him at the upcoming Cairo speech saying, "This is the 134th day that the Obama administration has not invaded an Arab country. Keep it up!"
Obama was surprisingly blunt with Friedman about why he can get away with it:
"What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.”
Similarly, the president said that if he is asking German or French leaders to help more in Afghanistan or Pakistan, “it doesn’t hurt if I have credibility with the German and French people. They will still be constrained with budgets and internal politics, but it makes it easier.”
Part of America’s “battle against terrorist extremists involves changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruit from,” he added. “And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”
One last thought -- I don't disagree all that much with Obama's diagnosis of the region, but it does suggest an important political problem. Most Middle Eastern states have very little incentive to work towards a two-state solution. Within many Arab countries, domestic resentment can be channeled into anger at the Israelis and symbolic support for the Palestinians. Why would governments in the region want to turn off that very useful spigot?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.