I am writing this from an air-conditioned office in downtown Washington, D.C., as the city outside nearly melts under the humid July heat wave. Perhaps, it is the tie and suit-clad bureaucrats who suffer most in such conditions, but, no matter what, the capital of the mighty American Empire continues its normal operations.
I write having spent a week in Washington, talking to people about North Korea (what else can yours truly talk about?), and in this article I will probably summarize my observations about what denizens of Washington’s offices now tend to think about that peculiar country, located at a peninsula in distant Asia.
Needless to say, the piece will somewhat lack specifics: I am not a journalist, and people talk to me on the explicit or implicit assumption that what is said is not going to be reported – at least with excessive details and attributions. So, when writing this piece, I will do what I can in order not to betray the trust of many people who talked to me, irrespective of what I think of these people’s opinions.
To start with, North Korea is again getting some attention. Normally, this distant and tiny country is very marginal to American strategic thinking, so it only attracts attention when the Kim family decides to do something mischievous. And while U.S. policy planners currently have a lot of things to worry about, from the Middle East to Ukraine to Brexit (and, above all, the South China Sea), recent actions from North Korea have somewhat surprisingly put it back within the ‘attention field’ of Washington, D.C.
Perhaps in the ten-odd years I have had maintained direct observation of the capital, I have never seen such a level of unity. Historically, U.S. policy has oscillated between two – equally unproductive – extremes of hard and soft approaches, but it seems now the hard line rules supreme. But it is now widely and universally believed that sanctions are the only way to go – the tougher, the better.
Historically, U.S. policy has oscillated between two – equally unproductive – extremes of hard and soft approaches, but it seems now the hard line rules supreme
Experts may be more divided, but among decision makers arguing against factions has become a completely useless endeavor. And so the identification of innovative new approaches to North Korea –which can avoid repeating established routine – are now nearly always linked to finding more efficient and, usually painful, methods and tactics for sanctioning North Korea.
There are manifold problems with a uniquely sanctions-based approach, but hard-liners believe that they can lead to appropriate solutions.
So far, the latest sanctions have not produced any visual impact on the state of North Korean economy, since both the retail market price for commodities and currency exchange rates have remained virtually unchanged since their introduction. Not all hard-liners are aware of this, but if faced with such evidence, they usually say that one should not expect results too quickly, since sanctions will require patience and should not be discarded if no results appear in few years, let alone in few months.
However, the sanctions proponents are not specific about how long the supposed trial should continue. And as the experience of U.S. sanctions against Cuba demonstrated convincingly, even half a century might be seen as a period insufficiently long for American sanctions to produce desired results.
THE CHINA PROBLEM
Another obvious problem is that sanctions implementation greatly depends on China. Since China controls some 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, it is clear without Beijing’s full participation that sanctions can never fully work. And this is understood by even the most devoted proponents of sanctions in D.C., who must convincingly identify how the ‘Chinese problem’ should be addressed.
There are some who believe that China can be just persuaded to be supportive, since, as they argue, Beijing is also set to lose due from DPRK nuclear proliferation. Thus it is assumed that Chinese interests will coincide with those of the U.S. when it comes to North Korea, and Beijing will be willing to cooperate.
However, this view seems rather a bit too Pollyannaish.
While it is true that China is not happy about North Korea’s brinkmanship and proliferation games, at the end of the day Chinese interests are likely to be more hurt by chaos in North Korea or by Korean unification led by the South, than by the North Korean nuclear project.
Essentially, the North Korean issue is, above all for the Chinese, an American issue – after all, North Korean missiles are being developed to target American, not Chinese, cities. The conflict in the South Chinese Sea, where the U.S., driven by both principles and realpolitik, openly supports China’s rivals, also makes Beijing less likely to cooperate in Korea, helping Americans to solve what is seen as, above all, their problem.
Essentially, the North Korean issue is, above all for the Chinese, an American issue
Thus, the hard-liners believe that China can be, essentially, blackmailed into supporting the sanctions and, broadly speaking, a hard-line policy. And the key, of course, is the U.S. military presence in North East Asia.
North Korean behavior provides the U.S. with a compelling reason to increase its military presence in the region, as well as to upgrade its military hardware. While such upgrades are always justified by the North Korean threat and purely military considerations, one cannot help but suspect that the primary goal of such actions is often political: they are seen as a way to push China towards a larger role (and tougher attitude) in dealing with North Korea.
The signal from Washington is thus clear: North Korean behavior is the only reason behind the military buildup, so if China and Russia are unhappy about THAAD deployment and other similar actions, they can solve the problem by completely siding with Washington.
It remains doubtful again whether it will work, however. The pressure might indeed make China take a more active stance and start hitting North Korea hard. However, it may also provoke a massive backlash, since China will feel threatened and perhaps become more willing to support North Korea as a bulwark against the Americans. It will take few months to see which way the situation is going, but so far the hard-liners believe that China will bow to the pressure.
Meanwhile, more sanctions may soon be coming.
The next major target of efforts may be the North Korean workers overseas whose remittances make a major, if exactly unknown, contribution to the North Korean economy. Already, there are signs of a campaign against accepting such North Korean workers overseas. And needless to say, the campaign is presented as a humanitarian move, aimed at protecting the workers rights. But this protection could involve the return of workers who pocket a couple of thousand greenbacks in savings on the average year, to jobs where they will be lucky to save anything and where work conditions will be much harsher. At any rate, conversations in D.C. suggest the pressure is likely to mount.
The official line remains that the goal (of these efforts) is denuclearization of the country. Some hard-liners (and soft-liners who hardened their stances recently) believe that such a dream is possible, with the Iran deal greatly emboldening this line of thinking. They believe a similar outcome will be possible in North Korea, too – conveniently overlooking the massive differences which exist between North Korean and Iran.
Others may hope that the Kim Family Regime will surrender nuclear weapons if faced with a clear and immediate domestic threat to its existence – and, if the regime is slow to react to such a threat, they do not mind seeing it collapsing and disintegrating. But these differences in the preferable outcome are not much discussed: at any rate, for whatever their final purpose, sanctions are seen as the only way to go in the Washington of 2016, unfortunately.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons
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