Tag: North Korea

China Must Confront Its North Korea Problem

Great powers usually have client states. Although a sign of influence, the latter often are more trouble than they are worth. North Korea increasingly appears that way for Beijing.

The Chinese-North Korean relationship was oft said to be like lips and teeth, forged in blood during the Korean War. But even then, the relationship was fraught with tension.

Today those look like the “good ol’ days.” There is little doubt that the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has lost the support of Chinese public opinion.

Academics and analysts outside of government also show little love for China’s one ally, which only takes and never gives. Top officials no longer attempt to disguise their frustration with the North’s behavior.

The Kim regime has returned ill-disguised contempt. Emissaries from the People’s Republic of China came and went as the North Korean leader failed to make even a pretense of listening.

So Se Pyong, Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva and the UN’s Conference on Disarmament, predictably denounced the United States and South Korea. When asked if the North felt pressure from the PRC after President Xi called for dialogue over the Korean “predicament,” So responded: “Whether they are going to do anything, we don’t care. We are going on our own way.”

Time for a Debate on Sanctions Policy

This morning, I attended an interesting speech by Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, on the future of economic sanctions. The speech was notable in that Lew made not only a defense of the effectiveness of sanctions, but also highlighted their potential costs, a variable that is too often missing from debates over sanctions policy.

Some of the points Lew made – like the argument that multilateral sanctions are better than unilateral ones – were hardly novel. Yet others were more interesting, including the argument that sanctions implementation should be based on cost/benefit analysis and an assessment of whether they are likely to be successful. Though such an approach sounds like common sense, it has not always been the rule.

He also focused on the importance of lifting sanctions once they’ve achieved their ends. This is a rebuke to some, particularly in congress, who have argued for reintroducing the sanctions on Iran lifted by the nuclear deal through some other mechanism. As he pointed out, refusing to lift these sanctions now means that they will be less effective in the future: if states know sanctions will remain in place regardless of their behavior, what incentive do they have to change it?

Perhaps most interestingly, Lew argued for the ‘strategic and judicious’ use of sanctions and against their overuse. This is an interesting argument from an administration for whom sanctions have often been the ‘tool of first resort.’ In doing so, he referenced both growing concerns about the costs of sanctions from the business community, and the broader strategic concern that overuse of sanctions could weaken the U.S. financial system or dollar in the long-run.

I still disagree with the Secretary on several points. While he is correct that nuclear sanctions on Iran have broadly been a success, he dramatically overstates the effectiveness of sanctions in the more recent Russian case. Much of the economic damage in that case was the result of falling oil prices, and sanctions have produced little in the way of coherent policy change inside Russia.

He also overstates the extent to which today’s targeted sanctions avoid broad suffering among the population. In fact, evidence suggests that modern sanctions still suffer some of the same flaws as traditional comprehensive trade sanctions, allowing the powerful to deflect the impact of sanctions onto the population, and reinforcing, not undermining, authoritarian dictators.

Despite this, it is refreshing to hear concerns about the long-term implications of runaway sanctions policy expressed by policymakers. In alluding to these concerns – many of which have been noted for some time now by researchers – the Treasury Secretary may help to spark a broader policy discussion of the benefits and costs of sanctions. If we wish to retain sanctions as an effective tool of foreign policy moving forward, such discussion is vital.

For more on some of the big issues surrounding sanctions policy, you can read some of Cato’s recent work on sanctions policy here and here, or check out the video from our recent event on the promises and pitfalls of economic sanctions

Mr. President, the Only Thing We Can Learn from Communism Is that It Doesn’t Work

Over the years, President Obama has made some statements that indicate a rather statist mindset.

Now he may have added to that list during a recent speech in Argentina. Check out this excerpt from a report in the Daily Caller.

President Barack Obama downplayed the differences between capitalism and communism, claiming that they are just “intellectual arguments.” …Obama said…”I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works.”

It’s hard to object to the notion that people should choose “what works,” so perhaps there’s not a specific quote that I can add to my collection. However, the president’s implication that there’s some kind of equivalence between capitalism and communism, which both systems having desirable features, is morally offensive. Sort of like saying that we should “choose from what works” in Hitler’s national socialism. Here’s what we know about the real-world impact of communism.

Communism is a disgusting system that butchered more than 100,000,000 people.

It is a system that leads to starvation and suffering.

Communism produces unspeakable horrors of brutality.

So what exactly “works” in that system? If you watch Obama’s speech, you’ll notice there’s not a lot of substance. There is a bit of praise for Cuba’s decrepit government-run healthcare system (you can click here, here, and here if you want to learn why the system is horrifying and terrible for ordinary citizens). And he also seems to think it’s some sort of achievement that Cuba has schools.

So let’s take a closer look at what Cuba actually has to offer. Natalie Morales is a Cuban-American actor, writer, and filmmaker. Here’s some of what she wrote about her country and her relatives still trapped on the island.

Let South Korean Develop Nuclear Weapons?

Four decades ago South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, launched a quest for nuclear weapons. Washington, the South’s military protector, applied substantial pressure to kill the program.

Today it looks like Park might have been right.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues its relentless quest for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The South is attempting to find an effective response.

Although the DPRK is unlikely to attack since it would lose a full-scale war, the Republic of Korea remains uncomfortably dependent on America. And Washington’s commitment to the populous and prosperous ROK likely will decline as America’s finances worsen and challenges elsewhere multiply.

In response, there is talk of reviving the South’s nuclear option. Won Yoo-cheol, parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, told the National Assembly: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves.”

Getting China to Become Tough with North Korea

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

Washington Must Start Persuading Beijing about North Korea

Secretary John Kerry went to Beijing to again lecture his hosts about the need for China to pressure North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program. As expected, his mission failed. The Xi government again proved unwilling to threaten the survival of the Kim dynasty.

Immediately after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test Kerry attacked Beijing’s policy: it “has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.” Even before Kerry arrived the PRC made clear it disagreed. “The origin and crux of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has never been China,” said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman: “The key to solving the problem is not China.”

While he was in Beijing she cited the behavior of other parties as “one major reason why the denuclearization process on the peninsula has run into difficulties.” Beijing officialdom has shown plenty of irritation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but China has demonstrated it has yet to be convinced to destroy its own ally and strengthen America’s position in Northeast Asia.

Kerry made the best of an embarrassing situation when he announced that the two sides agreed to an “accelerated effort” by the UN Security Council to approve a “strong resolution that introduces significant new measures” against the DPRK. No one should hold their breath as to the nature of those “measures,” however.

North Koreans Should Have Attended Davos

Admittedly, North Korean diplomats would have cut a curious figure in Davos, attending the just-ended World Economic Forum. Representatives of one of the few regimes which still professes to be communist might have had to close their eyes amidst the capitalist excess highlighting the conference.

Still, the North Koreans would have seen much new. And there was the potential of what the Wall Street Journal termed “awkward encounters,” which might have allowed some informal diplomatic discussions on the side.

Alas, while the DPRK was invited to attend the forum, WEF rescinded the offer after the North’s latest nuclear test.

North Korea may be the most isolated state on the planet. Much of that is by choice. Nevertheless, Washington and its allies have made isolation their tool of choice in dealing with the North.

Of course, frustration with Pyongyang is understandable. Yet the policy has utterly failed. The DPRK has enshrined a unique form of monarchical communism, created an extraordinarily brutal system of domestic repression, maintained a large conventional military poised within reach of Seoul, and developed a growing nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in December 2011, has not liberalized politically. Moreover, he has continued the North’s missile and nuclear research.

Yet the DPRK is loosening economic controls. While much more needs to be done, Pyongyang’s commitment to reform appears real.

Kim has promised higher living standards alongside nuclear weapons. The more the regime could be tempted to sample heretofore forbidden economic fruits, the better. Just taste the apple from the tree of capitalism, Jong-un.

Which is where the WEF could have come in. Late last year the WEF invited the North for the first time since 1998, “in view of positive signs coming out of the country.” After Pyongyang’s January 6 nuclear test, however, the invitation was revoked since “under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue.”

Actually, after the latest nuclear test was precisely the time when international dialogue was most required. War would be a foolish response and sanctions have been applied without result. China is angry with its frenemy but unwilling to risk the regime’s collapse. So if not negotiation, then what?