Looking for off-ramps
Kim Jong-un has put himself in a much more vulnerable position than he realizes. His actions leave a significant question for Seoul, Washington and Beijing. Do the three parties look for a way for him to stand down, or do they try to press their advantage in the hopes that the North Korean system will rupture? If your answer is the second option, be very careful what you wish for.
We have seen this movie before. Missile and nuclear tests are followed by UN Security Council condemnation and sanctions, which are followed by escalation and frayed nerves. The last such cycle came in early 2013, when the Kim regime welcomed President Park Geun-hye to office with tests and bluster.
But this time is different. First, China has agreed to sanctions that mark a very significant departure from the past. China has studiously avoided placing sanctions on North Korea’s commercial trade. By contrast, one provision of the new sanctions resolution alone - if fully implemented - has the power to virtually bankrupt the North: the ban on the export of coal. Coal exports represent about 40 percent of North Korea’s exports to China, which in turn now takes 80 percent or even more of North Korea’s total exports. To these must be added a host of new restrictions on shipping and finance that affect the country’s dwindling trade outside of China as well.
Second, the Kaesong closure has a significant effect, as I discussed in my last column. It is not the loss of trade alone that matters, but the loss of fungible foreign exchange that can be used to finance North Korea’s deficits with China.
The third point to note is that the North Korean economy has become more open, with implications for how sanctions will work. The regime has a lot of tools of control and repression. But how will it respond to a rapidly depreciating won or rising prices for food? Seventy-day campaigns and mobilization cannot overcome basic economic facts.
Finally, this time is different because of politics in North Korea. In 2013, Kim Jong-un took the dangerous step of wedding his entire legitimacy to nuclear and missile tests through the Byungjin Line of maintaining nuclear weapons while seeking economic development. With the important Party Congress looming in May, and with the appointment of a slew of hard-liners to key military positions, it is much harder for the young leader to compromise; thus the expected bluster of new rocket tests (which appear real) and miniaturization of nuclear weapons (about which significant doubts remain).
What should be done? Those favoring engagement in South Korea have denounced the hard-line taken by President Park and the reliance on more sanctions in particular. They argue that sanctions don’t work, either in general or with respect to North Korea in particular.
But this is simply false, as the Iranian deal shows most recently. Critics of the deal with Tehran underestimate the carefully orchestrated sanctions strategy that ultimately pushed Tehran back to the table. China has been less than forthcoming on North Korea in the past, but at this moment, the United States and South Korea should be patient and take China at its word.
Advocates of engagement make a second point, however, that is absolutely right: that countries don’t disarm unilaterally. Ultimately, denuclearization will require negotiations, and they, in turn, will require a consideration of the broader security architecture in Northeast Asia. In his recent interview with the Yonhap News Agency, the U.S. ambassador for North Korea policy, Sung Kim, rightly stressed that the United States remains strongly focused on denuclearization. Obviously, the United States is never going to enter peace regime negotiations that bypass South Korea; the idea is a North Korean fantasy.
But a careful reading of the interview suggests he has not closed the door on wider negotiations on a peace regime, which were an important part of the Joint Statement of September 2005. My favored venue would be through four-party talks, which cannot begin - let alone conclude - without a resumption of the six-party talks. However it is wrong to dismiss peace regime ideas out of hand. If China is going to finally use its muscle vis-a-vis Kim Jong-un, the United States and South Korea are going to come under strong pressure to consider peace regime proposals.
In the meantime, the expanded exercises are doing little to add to the deterrent that the United States and South Korea already have vis-a-vis the North. In crises, nothing is more destabilizing than two adversaries who are both talking about preemption. But let’s be honest: would you rather be Kim Jong-un at this moment or Park Geun-hye? Things are unlikely to get better for North Korea in coming months. In the face of those constraints, we need to provide options that will encourage Kim Jong-un to think more seriously than he has to date about the difficult choices he faces.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of the University of California in San Diego.
by Stephan Haggard