In February I went to Washington and spent some time talking to American analysts and academics specializing in Northeast Asia. This trip was very similar to my trip in China in January, so perhaps it is best that readers of NK News learn of my general impressions. I hope esteemed readers will understand why I do not go into excessive detail and avoid naming names.
One thing seems to be quite clear: In the decade that I have talked with the NK watchers in Washington, I have never witnessed such a hawkish mood, with such overwhelming support for a hardline policy. This might appear strange: The January nuclear test and February missile launch which triggered such a reaction were by no means the North Korean government’s first such actions. If we count only successful tests, this was the forth nuclear detonation, and the second missile launch.
The supporters of a harder line have come to monopolize debate on North Korean issues
Nonetheless, what has happened over the last two months has produced remarkable agitation and consternation within the Beltway. Indeed, one thing appears very clear: The supporters of a harder line have come to monopolize debate on North Korean issues. Even doves, admittedly a rare and endangered species at the time of writing, admit that some hard measures will have to be taken in order to pacify both public opinion and the hawks.
One cause of all this is the seemingly successful long-range missile launch which indicates that it is only a matter of time before North Korea acquires the ability to strike the continental United States. Some people even say that a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) complete with a reentry vehicle might constitute a red line. If North Korea conducts such a test, the U.S. might react very harshly, including the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against North Korean missile facilities. So far, however, this remains a rather remote possibility since North Koreans have not even attempted a re-entry vehicle test: Their missiles/rockets have always traveled one way: from earth to orbit. They have never attempted to bring a warhead back to the earth’s surface where intended targets (like, say, San Francisco) are located.
Whatever the reasons, though, things are tense, with two sets of policies liable to be implemented in the near future.
TWO OF A KIND
First, one should expect the introduction of new, much tougher, sanctions of two different kinds. On the one hand, this means UN-approved sanctions that require the assent of China, Russia and other Security Council members.
On the other hand, the U.S. is almost certain to implement unilateral sanctions similar to what was discussed during the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) crisis. Such sanctions would target all banks, credit institutions and companies that deal with North Korea, banning them from interacting with U.S. companies.
For any banking institution, such a ban is tantamount to a death warrant because the U.S. banking and credit system is the backbone of the entire global finance system while North Korea is remarkably insignificant economy-wise, so few would doubt that banks and companies in China and elsewhere would not think twice when faced with such a choice. Therefore, it is expected that companies in third countries (above all China, North Korea’s near sole trade partner these days) will avoid dealing with North Korea, thus pushing the North Korean economy towards crisis.
It should also be noted that North Korean programs that send labor abroad are also likely to be targeted. We have seen many cases where North Korean workers are described as “slave labor,” and this argument is going to be repeated many times. The claim is misleading, of course: A few years of hard work overseas is a dream destination for any North Korean worker, and competition for such jobs is stiff. However, labor export is a major currency earner and hence many in the Beltway think about curtailing it.
The second set of policies are aimed at China whose policy toward North Korea significantly changed last autumn. China has shown very little willingness to cooperate with the Americans since the January nuclear test. Thus, there is a common belief that China should be pushed toward putting serious pressure on North Korea. This can be done, as many American analysts argue, by increasing the U.S. military presence in and around the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, we are talking about the deployment of THAAD and other advanced military hardware.
The idea behind this plan is that China is not going to like mounting U.S. military pressure that results from North Korean adventurism. Hence, Beijing will do something to restrain North Koreans or perhaps will become more willing to cooperate with U.S. diplomats in the UN Security Council, as well as during the enforcement of multilateral sanctions.
Personally, during my trip I was very skeptical about such ideas and suspected that such pressure, if brought to bear, would make Chinese diplomats even more stubborn when it comes to North Korean issues. However, recent events might well indicate my pessimism to have been wrong, and that China can indeed be prompted to act by such measures. At the time of writing, it seems that China is going to be a more active supporter of an unusually tough UN sanctions regime, even though initially it showed little enthusiasm for such a tough approach.
Indeed, this tough attitude contradicts the new Chinese policy toward North Korea and can be explained by Chinese anxieties about excessive increases in the U.S. military presence. If tougher measures are indeed approved by the UN and put in place, this leads us to suspect that Beltway hawks are right, and their stratagem does work.
LOOKING PAST THE NORTH
… it seems that most analysts in the U.S. do not have a clear idea about what they want to achieve in the region in the long run
At the same time, it seems that most analysts in the U.S. do not have a clear idea about what they want to achieve in the region in the long run. There is a consensus that a nuclear North Korea is not acceptable, but very few are willing to think beyond the nuclear issue.
Of course, only time will tell whether the above-discussed measures will prove effective. For example, some experts believe that in the nearly 10 years that have passed since the BDA crisis, North Korea has learned how to get around U.S. unilateral sanctions (using disposable Chinese front companies, for example). It is also an open question as to whether the North Korean government would surrender in the face of outside pressure even when China is involved. The top elite see nuclear weapons as a firewall against outside invasion, and would rather see another famine than lose them.
Nonetheless, while it is dispiriting to see such one-sided discussions in Washington on such matters, it is good to see active interest. Such interest is not likely to be sustained, mind you. After all, North Korea is a marginal issue when compared to the EU crisis, the Middle East mess and the resurgence of Russia. Nonetheless, at the time of writing, interest is quite real.
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