No Deal

I can’t help but feel that Joel S. Wit and Richard Sokolsky’s article at Atlantic on how to make a deal with North Korea is arrant nonsense:

Reading North Korean intentions is, of course, always a tricky business. However, the White House, already consumed with putting out daily fires and faced with a bunch of bad options for constraining North Korea, has little to lose in exploring them. Moreover, the U.S. will be no worse off than it is now if testing the North proves that it is not serious about abandoning the escalatory path it has been on for the past eight years. In fact, it will arguably be in a stronger position to seek greater Chinese pressure on the North if it has, as Beijing has urged, pursued diplomacy.

Speed is of the essence to get past a potentially escalating crisis and that will require balancing a complicated set of initiatives. The Trump administration has already taken two important steps: moving forward with United Nations deliberations on Pyongyang’s ballistic-missile test, since it violates existing sanctions; and signaling to the North that Washington will defend its allies. But it also makes sense to test North Korea’s intentions by signaling a new openness to serious diplomacy without preconditions.

Such contacts would be facilitated by reactivating the only channel of communication between the two countries through Pyongyang’s Mission to the UN, which has been shut down since last July. And given the tightly controlled and centralized North Korean political system, it would also make sense to create a parallel and private high-level dialogue between Trump and Kim Jong Un, starting with direct communications between the two leaders. Suspending the exercises, as the North Koreans have demanded, is neither politically nor strategically prudent. But continuing to speak publicly about decapitating the North Korean leadership and making overt nuclear gestures, such as over-flights of long-range nuclear-capable bombers, would send precisely the wrong signal unless Pyongyang conducts another nuclear test.

We know with a confidence based on experience that North Korea cannot be trusted to honor any agreement. Full stop.

I do think there’s a strategy that would work short of war: embarrass the Chinese regime. I believe they’ll throw the North Korean baby off the back of the troika if the wolves get close enough. Start a relentless public opinion campaign characterizing the Chinese authorities as weak because they can’t control Kim Jong Un and rather claiming that any action that doesn’t accomplish that is a “wag the dog” strategy to distract from their weakness. And so on.

I don’t believe that the Trump Administration is subtle or skilled enough to pull that off and there are too many American businessmen making money off cheap Chinese labor to upset the China trade applecart.

Meanwhile, we’ll just wait until one of North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBMs goes astray and strikes Kyoto. Or Honolulu.

3 comments… add one
  • TastyBits

    I do not think you can shame anybody or anything that does not care about what you are trying to shame them over, and those who do not care about much are shameless. Furthermore, the shamee has to care about the opinion of the shamers more than the deed itself.

    There is also the issue of the shaming campaign doing the opposite.

  • Andy

    I think shaming the Chinese would be better than other proposals, but I doubt it will have much effect. I think China’s ability to meaningfully influence North Korean behavior is not that great when it comes to its nuclear and missile programs.

    To expand on the my thoughts a bit more, North Korean strategy is based on two primary considerations:
    – Maintenance of the Kim regime.
    – Juche, especially in the strategic sense.

    Up until the early 1990’s, North Korea achieved strategic independence through its conventional military forces which were large and capable enough to present an existential threat to the South and deter any attempt to topple the regime from the outside. However, North Korea’s conventional capabilities have atrophied since then, while those of the US, South Korea and Japan have increased substantially. The conventional balance of power has therefore shifted considerably and with it the DPRK regime believes this shift makes them vulnerable. They have no great power benefactor they can rely on and no explicit nuclear umbrella. So they’re using nukes to maintain their strategic position and they view nukes as the only way to guarantee their independence as the continuation of the regime. Since they view the US as their primary opponent, they want the ability to deter the US via a nuclear missile capability. China has probably decided it can’t really affect this calculus, so they prefer to kick the can down the road.

  • It might have more effect than you might think. North Korea is highly dependent on the Chinese for oil and other strategic materials. The Chineses regime holds its power largely through repute and raw military force. China’s recent slowdown and the issues with the Chinese stock markets have shaken the leadership’s repute already.

    IMO we’ve been underestimating the importance of reputation in our dealings with China. A lot of what the leadership has been doing lately has been about reputation.

Leave a Comment