Tag Archive | "diplomacy"

Negotiating a Nuclear Deal with North Korea Just Got a Whole Lot Harder

By Troy Stangarone

If negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea was already a fraught proposition, President Donald Trump’s decision to no longer certify the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) just made that prospect all the more difficult.

For decades one of the main obstacles to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue has been a lack of trust in North Korea’s ability to live up to an agreement. In the late 1990s the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework to halt North Korea’s first push to develop a nuclear weapon and then under the Obama Administration the two sides negotiated the Leap Day Agreement to freeze North Korea’s ballistic missile tests. In both cases the agreements fell apart due to actions by North Korea.  Now the United States is taking actions in relation to the Iran nuclear agreement that raise questions about the United States willingness to live up to a negotiated agreement.

In the case of Iran, there is general agreement that it is in compliance with JCPOA. However, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) requires the president to certify not just that Iran is in technical compliance with the JCPOA, but also that the suspension of sanctions is “appropriate and proportionate” as well as in the U.S. national interests. It is on the basis that the current sanctions relief is not “appropriate and proportionate” to the steps that Iran has taken under JCPOA that President Trump decided to end certification, not on the basis of Iran’s compliance.

President Trump took this step over concerns centered on issues that the agreement was never intended to address such as Iran’s support for non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the regime’s continued ballistic missile tests. In doing so, he has moved to increase pressure on Iran over its broader behavior, but he has also raised questions about U.S. credibility in any efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea.

The president’s decision does not mean that the United States has withdrawn from JCPOA. Instead, by refusing to certify Iran President Trump has thrown the issue back to Congress, which now has 90 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. The expectation is that Congress will not immediately impose sanctions, but rather work to make changes to INARA. However, should the Congress re-impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program the United States would be in violation of JCPOA.

With the agreement back in Congress’ hands, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker has put forward a proposal with the Trump Administration and Senator Tom Cotton to amend INARA. Under the proposal, U.S. sanctions on Iran would snap back into place if the intelligence community determined that Iran had taken steps to enhance its nuclear program that moved it under the one year breakout period for developing a nuclear weapon. It would also use the threat of re-imposing sanctions to remove the sunset clauses in JCPOA, strengthen verification, and limit Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges.

While all are worthy goals, in pursing changes through an amendment of U.S. law rather than new negotiations with Iran the Trump Admiration and Congress would in essence be seeking to unilateral rewrite the agreement. In fact, President Trump stated as much when he said that he would like to “make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law.” If the United States can simply redo significant provisions of an international agreement through its own domestic law, there is little incentive for North Korea to negotiate a deal with a country that will try to use its own laws to unilaterally rewrite an agreement even if North Korea lives up to its end of the bargain?

Beyond undermining U.S. credibility in talks with North Korea, refusing to certify Iran as part of an effort to negotiate better terms also signals to North Korea that any deal might be less advantageous than Pyongyang would be willing to accept. While pressure may bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, reaching an agreement with North Korea will require a tradeoff of benefits and risks on both sides. If the United States now wants better terms from Iran on the nuclear deal, a type of deal which North Korea has already indicated is unacceptable, decertifying Iran only moves the two sides potential negotiating positons further apart should talks become possible.

The decision on Iran also makes maintaining a unified international front with North Korea more difficult. U.S. credibility isn’t merely about North Korea’s willingness to trust the United States in any negotiations, but also that of our partners that the United States is working in good faith and that any agreement reached will be upheld as long as North Korea maintains the terms. If the United States cannot be trusted to keep its word should the political situation change, there is less incentive for countries such as China to bear the burden of sanctions to bring North Korea to the table.

At a time when the United States already faced a difficult nuclear crisis with North Korea, moving to unilaterally alter the Iran deal only complicates matters. The United States could now find itself dealing with two nuclear crises, more reluctance among allies and partners to help the United States, and a North Korea that has an additional reason to be skeptical of negotiating a deal with the United States, none of which are in the United States’ national interest.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Jen Morgan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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A British Voice in North Korea: A Threat to the Regime?

By Jeff Zwick

The BBC may have just put the North Korean regime in a jam. As one of its 12 new language services, BBC Korea is now up and running. In addition to the website, the service’s radio transmissions will be accessible to Koreans on both ends of the peninsula. This move by the London-based news network presents the North Korean regime with two bad options: jam the transmissions, as it has already done, or let the programs run uninterrupted. Given the fact that the DPRK has active relations with the UK – the DPRK has an embassy in London and the UK has an embassy in the DPRK – jamming the radio transmissions may result in North Korean citizens questioning the regime’s motives behind blocking a news network from a country with whom relations are active. If the regime chooses the second option, allowing the transmissions to run uninterrupted, the regime allows outside information to enter the reclusive country, something that it has long opposed.

According to the Economist, there are at least 10 foreign radio stations transmitting to North Korea. These include U.S. and South Korea-based radio stations. It may be simple for the North Korean people to understand why their government jams radio transmissions from the U.S. and South Korea-based news networks. The North has long demonized these countries and has no active relations with either of them. It may be more difficult for a North Korean citizen to accept the jamming of foreign radio transmissions from a country with which the DPRK has active relations like the newest foreign radio station on the scene, the London-based BBC.

The relations between the DPRK and the UK have recently become less stable with the North threatening the UK’s “miserable end” if it joins the U.S. and South Korea in military drills. The North Korean government will likely need to continue such rhetoric, placing the UK in the same category as its enemies, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, in order to justify the jamming to the North Korean people. If it jams the BBC transmissions without taking these actions, it would be clearer to North Korean citizens that there is an unknown motive behind the censorship. That level of uncertainty and confusion could build and develop into an unfavorable situation for the regime. On the other hand, if the regime allows the broadcasts to air uninterrupted, the information could influence the thoughts and actions of North Korean people.

Legally, North Koreans can only listen to state-run radio. Radios sold in North Korea are programmed to only receive transmissions from such legal channels. There are ways around this but even for those with access to a radio which can receive foreign broadcasts, the regime makes efforts to jam the transmissions. Despite these censorship efforts, some North Koreans tune into foreign radio programs. After interviewing 350 North Korean refugees, defectors, and travelers a survey by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), cited in a report by Intermedia, discovered that 72% of the interviewees learned of outside information by word of mouth. The second highest source at 11% was foreign radio. Of the 103 foreign radio listeners, 61% stated that they listened to foreign broadcasts to “learn news about the outside world.” When this group was asked how often they listened, 46% stated that they listened weekly.

There seems to be an appetite for outside information amongst some North Koreans and its consumption has led to changes within North Korean Society. One North Korean in the Intermedia study said the viewing of South Korean and Chinese dramas has caused men to confess their feelings to women and rather than arranged marriages, most couples nowadays date before getting married. This specific change may not be threatening to the regime but it does show that outside information has an effect on North Koreans.

If the DPRK’s relations with the UK translate into a base of trust for North Korean citizens, the rate of change in North Korean society that follows could potentially be larger than that of previous years. If there is indeed a base of trust for the BBC in North Korea, jamming the transmissions may yield more dire results for the North Korean government than allowing it to air uninterrupted. The idea of something becoming more interesting after it is restricted or censored is referred to as the Streisand Effect. It is anyone’s guess as to what this effect would look like in North Korea, but with BBC on the air, the chances of such an effect may have just increased.

Jeff Zwick has a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Utah and is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Tim@SW2008’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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U.S.-Korea Relations: Don’t Drive a Wedge

By Mark Tokola

There is a small but growing body of commentary arguing that Washington and Seoul are drifting apart on North Korea policy.  At the headline level, there clearly is a difference in tone between President Trump’s tough rhetoric and President Moon Jae-in’s insistence that the only acceptable resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue is a peaceful one.  Extrapolating from this, commentators have praised or condemned Donald Trump for upping the stakes on armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula; and have praised or condemned Moon Jae-in for putting a premium on peaceful engagement.  Trump has become either a “decisive leader” or a “war monger,” and Moon either a “man of peace” or an “appeaser.”  There are significant dangers to letting these caricatures take hold.  One of Kim Jong-un’s dreams would be for a rift to develop between the United States and South Korea.  It should be one of the last things we would want.

It would be untrue to say that rhetoric doesn’t matter.  It certainly does matter as a signal of intentions.  However, policy doesn’t only consist of rhetoric.  Look more closely at what the Trump and Moon Administrations have said and done in regard to North Korea.  Both have insisted that their goal is denuclearization.  Both have said that they do not seek regime change but rather a change in North Korean behavior.  Both have said that they seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis.  Both have emphasized the important role China should play in restraining North Korean behavior.

Even in the details of their policies, President Moon and President Trump have agreed: (1) to deploy THAAD in the face of public protests in South Korea; and, (2) contrary to the desires of pro-engagement voices in both the United States and in South Korea, they have both rejected the Chinese proposal of a “dual freeze” to halt U.S.-ROK military exercises in purported exchange for a North Korean testing freeze.  Moon Jae-in has been outspoken that North Korean nuclear and missile tests are unacceptable.  Like President Trump, President Moon has warned North Korea that an attack on his country would be met with an overwhelming military response.

Moon Jae-in’s policy towards North Korea does differ from that of his conservative predecessors Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.  He places more emphasis on unification as a long-term process of integration.  The border between the two states would gradually blur as the systems merged through increased economic cooperation and people-to-people ties — inevitably but not hurriedly along democratic and free market lines.  His conservative predecessors placed more emphasis on unification taking place in the nearer term, and on the need to prepare for a single, unified state.  There is not a vast different between Moon Jae-in’s vision of North-South integration and Park Geun-hye’s early policy of “Trustpolitik” – which is yet another reason for Americans not to jump to conclusions about Moon being ‘soft’ on North Korea.

The differences between the Korean progressives and conservatives are not ones that should roil the U.S.-ROK alliance.  The U.S. dealt successfully in the past with progressive South Korean administrations.  No South Korean political leader of note believes that South Korea would benefit from the opening of a gap between the U.S. and South Korea.  There is widespread support for the alliance among the South Korean people and for a U.S. military presence in Korea. For the United States’ part, far from insisting that South Korea not deal with North Korea, long-standing U.S. policy has been to tell Pyongyang that they must deal with South Korea.

The real mystery is why North Korea has not bothered to attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.  Kim Jong-un could easily do so by responding to President Moon’s attempts to engage in ways that could complicate the alliance.  Kim Jong-un could offer to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex on South Korea’s terms, or could invite President Moon to Pyongyang for a summit, or could offer peace and arms control talks on the condition that U.S. forces be reduced or removed from South Korea.  Instead, Kim Jong-un has not even bothered to reply to South Korean initiatives to engage.  Furthermore, Kim Jong-un has said that Moon Jae-in is nothing more than a puppet of the U.S. and may be “even worse than his predecessors.”  Kim Jong-un may not be trying to split the alliance because he has not seen an opening to do so – yet.

Two reasonable, basic principles for the U.S. in dealing with North Korea are: first, do nothing that damages the U.S.-ROK alliance; and second, do nothing that strengthens Kim Jong-un’s position.  Putting Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in into opposing camps unnecessarily does both.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Aram Kudurshian’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Contradictions in Trump’s UN Speech and Implications for North Korea Policy

By Troy Stangarone

As President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time he asserted the need for a strong role for national sovereignty in international relations, but also called on the United Nations to resolve the now imminent threat from North Korea. While the ideas of sovereignty and international cooperation need not be in contradiction with each other, the potential tension between the two raises questions about the future approach to resolving the crisis with North Korea, as does President Trump’s suggestion that he might walk away from the nuclear deal with Iran.

In his remarks to the UN General Assembly, President Trump laid out a potentially interesting definition of sovereignty, but one that the administration likely needs to flesh out and clarify. In Trump’s view sovereign nations have “two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” This definition is in tension with the more established definition of sovereignty from the Treaty of Westphalia that defined sovereignty as the right of states to rule over their territory without interference from other states. There is no expectation for the state to act in the interest of its own people.

In essence, President Trump has augmented the idea of non-interference in the affairs of other states with the idea of the state having a duty to look after the interests of its people and takes a more limited view of modern day multilateralism. In his remarks, President Trump makes clear that the United States does not seek to impose its form of government on others, so the obligations of the state to its people are not tied to a form of government, but rather whether that government is working in the interests of its people.

However, President Trump also seems to suggest that if a state is not meeting its obligations to its population it does not maintain the second aspect of sovereignty – the obligation of other states not to interfere in its internal affairs. In the modern era, the idea of a more malleable version of sovereignty is not uncommon. The European Union functions on the concept of pooling sovereignty to collectively achieve a higher purpose and, hence, accepts a degree of interference in the authority of the state. Or, perhaps more in the context of the United Nations there is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, where UN member states take on a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other states to preclude genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes. It seems unlikely that President Trump wanted to lay out such an expansive concept of the ability of states to intervene in the affairs other states, but in assigning the interests of citizens as one of the duties of states President Trump does seem to be laying out groundwork for when states have failed in their duties and lost their sovereignty.

While President Trump’s remark that the United States was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea” if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, less attention has been given to his remark that this is exactly the type of problem that the United Nations was designed to resolve.  However, his approach to sovereignty seems to make a stronger case for the United Nations to take action on the issue of North Korea due to the regime in Pyongyang’s failure to look after the interests of its citizens rather than the dangers of its nuclear program. While there is clear international consensus that North Korea’s weapons programs are a danger to international peace and security, the emphasis on citizens interests and lack of clarity on where the rights of nations ends potentially complicates dealing with North Korea as it raises questions about whether resolving the nuclear issue is sufficient.

If President Trump’s use of sovereignty potentially complicates collective action on North Korea, his suggestion that the United States might not remain in the nuclear deal with Iran does as well. The Iran deal has been suggested as a potential framework for a deal with North Korea. While Pyongyang has rejected such an arrangement, it does likely represent the starting point for both sides to think about a potential solution. Pyongyang will likely seek a more generous arrangement than what Iran received, while the concerns expressed by the Trump Administration suggest that it would seek an agreement that addressed more issues than merely North Korea’s weapons programs.

However, getting to that point requires finding the political space to negotiate an agreement that would stop North Korea’s weapons development and roll back its capabilities, which has long been the goal of increased UN sanctions. To work, the United States needs to have credibility as a negotiating partner to achieve a negotiated outcome. Leaving the deal with Iran would raise questions about the credibility of the United States in any negotiations with North Korea, but would also reinforce the idea that any deal reached with the United States could simply be changed by any future U.S. administration.

It would also potentially complicate cooperation with states in the region. Any successful agreement requires the continued cooperation of China and Russia to maintain pressure on North Korea. If the United States is not viewed as a credible partner by Beijing in reigning in North Korea’s behavior, it lessens the incentives for China to maintain pressure on North Korea to enter into talks and for all sides to abide by any agreements reached.

In many ways, President Trump’s speech at the United Nations was not a provocative as many have suggested. While President Trump is known for using stronger language than prior U.S. presidents, his suggestion that the United States would forcefully retaliate against North Korean aggression is not inconsistent with prior U.S. administrations and his call for the UN to resolve the crisis have been underplayed. However, his own remarks also raise questions about achieving those ends. Does his vision of sovereignty and a state’s obligations to its citizens suggest greater change in North Korea than many other states may be looking for? Will the administration’s actions towards the Iran nuclear deal undermine efforts to reach a deal with North Korea? These are two key questions which the administration needs to flesh out to avoid creating contradictions in its own policies.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. A version of this article in Chinese also appeared in Dunjiaodu.com. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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New Sanctions Aim at North Korean Economy, Less so Missiles and Nukes

Won hold steady as gasoline prices soar, but for how long?                                               

By William Brown

China and Russia watered down the new UN sanctions, imposed after North Korea startled the world with its apparent thermonuclear test September 3. However, their impact on the economy still could be severe, even crippling eventually.  By accepting tough rules on textiles, joint ventures, and overseas employment, both former communist capitals seem to have tossed out their previous, probably pretend, concerns for the well-being of the people and aimed squarely at the general economy.

Meanwhile, specific U.S. sponsored sanctions that would have disproportionately hit state enterprises and the government were denied, especially in the oil sector.  Kim Jong -un predictably reacted to the outside world with more bluster and yet another intermediate range missile test over Japan on September 14.  But we don’t know as much about what he and his circle of leaders are thinking and doing domestically, something probably of far greater importance.

One thing is for sure; big adjustments in economic policy are needed if he is to maintain progress on the two byongjin fronts—the nuclear program and economic growth. If he isn’t careful, inflation caused by commodity shortages will come roaring back to crack what remains of his command, or fixed-price economic system. This would undo what so far has been Kim’s crowning domestic achievement, getting a handle on a monetary system left in chaos by his father and grandfather (see byongjin blog).  As the leadership learned in a monetary panic in 2009, just as young Kim was being prepared to take over the government, nothing will bring people, even North Koreans, to the streets faster than an assault on their money. And if true nearly ten years ago, it is far more important today given the wide expansion in the use of money and markets that is contributing to economic growth.

If Kim needs any reminders of this predicament, all he needs to do is look down the street. Diplomats, and Daily NK reporters are saying the price of gasoline in Pyongyang has nearly doubled just in the past three weeks. A kilogram of gasoline is reported to cost W23,000 on September 9th, the equivalent of about $8 a gallon at the widely used black market exchange rate, up from W18,000 at the beginning of the month, W14,000 in late August, and 8,000 won in January.  Unlike a price jump in April, this time taxi and auto activity in Pyongyang is said to being impacted, and business is slowing.  Likely even more concerning to the government are similar jumps in diesel and kerosene prices, just as the important and fuel-intensive harvest season is beginning.  Diesel is widely used in portable generators providing essential electrical services in Pyongyang as the national grid supply remains unreliable. Complaints are bound to be rising, especially among the newly enriched entrepreneurial classes who need electrical generators to pump water for their high-rise apartments.

Petroleum though might be among the least of Pyongyang’s new concerns. The price jumps occurred despite what appears on paper very modest oil sanctions, suggesting prices may come down if the inflow is not actually squeezed.  The U.S. had hoped for an embargo of Chinese crude oil deliveries though few expected that would happen.  Instead crude oil will continue at its historic rate of about 4.4 million barrels a year (about 600,000 tons) and will likely remain free to the North Korean government based on a secretive Mao-era aid agreement. (I argue elsewhere that ending this aid is the key to pressuring Pyongyang.) Refined petroleum product sales to North Korea are capped at 2 million barrels a year, 500,000 barrels a quarter beginning in October, slightly less than the 2.2 million barrels China exported last year, but more than what China reports as having provided through July of this year.

Apparently, as reported by western news agencies, foreign exchange shortages are squeezing the North Korean importers so Chinese suppliers, such as the giant China National Petroleum Corporation, are withholding normal export credits, this was occurring even before the new sanctions.  If so, it may be that finance, rather than sanctions, will be the limiting factor on oil deliveries.  The U.S. government, on the other hand, asserts Pyongyang imports more than twice what North Korea’s trade partners admit to selling North Korea and that somehow all of this will be subjected to the 2-million-barrel a year cap.  This would mean that the total annual petroleum supply from all sources would fall from about 8 million barrels to about 6 million, a significant but not a drastic drop, and it would save Pyongyang precious foreign exchange.

Much more damaging to North Korea would be a collapse in the NK won, and attendant inflation, a logical outcome of the new embargos on North Korean textile and apparel exports and fish products.  According to Chinese customs, textiles have risen from almost nothing ten years ago to $330 million in the first seven months of this year. This is already down about 20 percent from the same period in 2016 and, if the sanctions are enforced, will drop to nothing in coming months. The foreign exchange cost to North Korea will be much less than that, since North Korea imports more textile related materials from China than it exports and much of these will no longer be needed.  Still, the disruption to the industry, one of the country’s largest employers, will be severe.  In recent years, textile factories have retooled to serve the export market and now will have switch back to a much less viable domestic market. Workers in the large, unproductive state factories will be generally unaffected but thousands, maybe tens of thousands of productive workers not in the socialist system will be forced out of their private or foreign joint venture workplaces. Many may try to go to China where factories will be in even greater need of cheap labor, but the new overseas employment restrictions will make that hard to do, at least legally.  How the regime responds to this soon to be hard-hit labor and export intensive industry should thus be watched very carefully.

This weekend diplomats in Pyongyang reported that about W8,000 will still buy a dollar in local exchange markets, no change from over the past few years, making the dollar price of gasoline among the highest in the world.  This stability is remarkable given the drop in exports, and indicated further drops on the way.  But here again North Korea, and its half-market, half-command economy is anything but normal.  This stability is probably the result of extreme caution in providing new credit, effectively preventing new investments, or wage increases for impoverished state workers, and in allowing foreign currency, U.S. dollars, to invade the economy at all levels. Pyongyang may even be intervening in the new foreign exchange markets to support the won, expending precious dollars to do so.  North Korea, quite amazingly, thus seems on its way to becoming a dollarized or currency board type economy, one in which the government has little control over the money supply, the banking system, and even its own budget.  If North Koreans are like people the world over, and there is no reason to think they are not, once a small break in the value of won occurs, they will panic and sell their won for available dollars in a downward, self-realizing, spiral.  The government knows this and is valiantly holding the line.

Sooner or later we can expect the rate to crack, just like ancient Korean houses  in Ryanggang province reacting to the September thermonuclear explosion. How then will the young Marshal respond?

William Brown is an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is retired from the federal government. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Roman Harak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Trump at the UN: A Plea for Help on North Korea

By Mark Tokola

Within minutes of President Trump’s September 19 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, headline writers were irresistibly drawn to the President’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea and his description of “Rocket Man” (aka Kim Jong-un) as being on a “suicide mission.”  But, the context of the tough talk was President Trump’s call on the United Nations membership collectively to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear program – a call which must be premised on the idea that North Korea can still be stopped without military action.  It is premised on faith in the United Nations.  Trump thanked China and Russia for joining the recent, unanimous Security Council vote to impose tough sanctions on North Korea.  He called on all nations to stop enabling North Korea through trade and financial services.  Trump also reminded the General Assembly of North Korea’s appalling human rights abuses.

Some will interpret President Trump’s remarks on North Korea as moving the United States closer towards exercising a “military option,” and that may be partially true.  The threat to “totally destroy” a country is a step beyond the usual, “will respond to threats appropriately” diplomatic language.  But, no interpretation is necessary to hear what the President unambiguously stated, that North Korea poses a threat to international peace and security, and it is the responsibility of the United Nations and its member states to take steps to preserve peace and security.  North Korea does represent a unique threat.  It is the only nation to conduct nuclear tests in this century.  It is the only nation that gleefully produces videos of nuclear attacks on foreign countries (Washington D.C. and New York being recent subjects).  Kim Jong-un has threatened to turn South Korea into a sea of fire and “sink” Japan.  If that, combined with North Korea’s ICBM and nuclear testing and its international weapons proliferation, doesn’t represent a threat to international peace and security, it is hard to think what would.

President Trump’s United Nations speech seems, above all, to be a plea for help from the international community in dealing with North Korea.  He said, in essence, that the United States is capable of dealing with North Korea militarily, but the preference of the United States is a peaceful solution.  The means to achieve a peaceful solution requires international cooperation.  Trump essentially admitted that the United States alone, or acting in concert with its close allies including South Korea, cannot apply enough economic or diplomatic pressure to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  The cooperation of all countries, including China and Russia, will be necessary to preserve the peace which North Korea threatens.  That is a realistic, non-unilateral, internationalist approach – tough rhetoric aside.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from John Gillespie’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Final DPRK Travel Ban Regulations Will Cut Humanitarian Help for North

By Robert King

On September 1st, the ban on travel to North Korea for holders of U.S. passports went into effect.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a month earlier that the ban would be imposed, but the initial statement indicated that there would be exemptions for humanitarian activities and journalists.  Those exemptions, however, are limited and narrow.

The regulations provide four specific groups who will be granted permission to travel to the DPRK: Professional journalists whose reporting will be made available publicly; American citizens who are employed by the International Red Cross or the American Red Cross who are traveling to the North on an official Red Cross mission; individuals whose travel is justified by a “compelling humanitarian interest;” and individuals whose travel is “otherwise in the national interest.”

Not only are the categories tightly limited, but the State Department has not made the application process easy.  The first step in receiving permission to use a U.S. passport to go to North Korea is to request permission with supporting documentation.  The regulations do not indicate how long it will require for a decision, but there is no evidence that such requests will get expedited treatment.  If the request is denied, there is no appeal.  If the request is approved, the individual will then have to apply separately for a special U.S. passport.   To get this special validated passport apparently requires a new passport application with the appropriate fees.  The U.S. passport with the DPRK travel exception will be valid only for a single trip, and any subsequent travel will require a new travel permit application and a new U.S. specially validated passport.

American citizens involved in humanitarian and educational programs in the DPRK left North Korea prior to the effective date of the new travel requirements.  Leaders of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have expressed concerns about the impact of the travel ban on their humanitarian and assistance programs.

With the imposition of the travel ban, it is worth considering the factors that led to this decision and its potential consequences.

The initial decision to impose the travel ban was largely the outgrowth of the tragic death of American college student Otto Warmbier after he was detained, tried, spent 17 months imprisoned in the North, and died shortly after being returned to the United States in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.”   He died in mid-June, and the travel ban was announced six weeks later.  State Department official travel warnings for the DPRK, issued well before Otto Warmbier was detained, bluntly said “Do not travel to North Korea,” but there was no prohibition on travel.

Over the last decade or so, some twenty Americans have been detained by the DPRK, in most cases for reasons that are consistent with North Korean laws, but not with those of democratic societies like the United States.  These detained Americans required considerable effort by American diplomats to seek their release from the North, and in some cases their release required visits to the DPRK by former presidents Clinton and Carter and other senior American officials.

There was frustration in Washington over using U.S. diplomatic resources to seek the release of Americans in North Korea when there were questions about the benefit of the travel in the first place.  Also, there was concern that tourist dollars were being used to fund DPRK military programs and the leader’s lavish lifestyle.

A second element which likely encouraged the decision on the travel ban was the growing American frustration of dealing with the DPRK’s illicit nuclear and missile programs.  Over the past year the ramp-up of missile tests as well as continued nuclear weapon development has led to a growing sense of urgency.  At the same time, the options available to contain the North are limited.  American tourist revenue is a small source of funding for the military, but cutting off the revenue might be helpful.

Americans taking a North Korean tour to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon serves little benefit other than to give adventurous Americans bragging rights.  The DPRK receives significant revenue from such travel.

There are, however, significant but intangible benefits to the United States from the humanitarian efforts of private American citizens, and the travel ban will significantly reduce American NGO efforts.

American NGOs help undermine the DPRK’s oft repeated charge of “American hostility.”  The vicious brutal image North Koreans have of Americans is softened for those North Koreans who deal directly with Americans (though the Koreans are carefully vetted and monitored).   Furthermore, contact with Americans helps get external information to North Koreans otherwise unable to access information about the outside world.  In a country where all information is tightly controlled by the Pyongyang government, even such limited contact with Americans provides information that undermines government information controls.  Such information helps pry open a tightly closed society.

Another non-political benefit is the good that is done by these American NGOs.  North Korea is a poor country whose standard of living has more in common with sub-Saharan Africa than its Asian neighbors. (UN Per capita income figures for 2015 place DPRK at 179 of 195 countries, while South Korea is number 31.  North Korea is below Sierra Leone and Rwanda, but above Uganda in the UN ranking.)  There is no question that the poverty and living standards are the result of regime mismanagement, and its use of scarce resources for military expenditures rather than for the well-being of the people.  Clearly, the regime is responsible.

The North Korean people suffer because of their leaders, but they are not responsible for the totalitarian regime’s policies.  American NGOs provide help dealing with humanitarian issues such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis—which benefits not only infected North Koreans, but also neighboring populations in China, South Korea and Russia, which could be infected if the disease is not controlled. These humanitarian and aid projects are funded through the generosity of many Americans who contribute to these efforts and other Americans who carry out them out.

It is difficult to see that these stringent restrictions on American NGOs engaged in humanitarian engagement in the North will have benefits that justify ending the benefits they provide.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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North Korea Tests Missile Over Japan Again: Stronger Action Needed

By Troy Stangarone

For the second time in a little more than two weeks, North Korea has launched a missile over Japan. The easy temptation in the aftermath of the latest UN sanctions would be to simply view the most recent test as North Korea expressing its displeasure at additional economic pressure. But because the regime has on multiple occasions stated that sanctions would not hurt North Korea, perhaps it’s best to view the test as what it is — a continuation of North Korea’s provocative steps to develop a wide array of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

However, if past tests have been provocative, this one comes with a greater sense of dread than prior tests. In the past, Pyongyang has threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of fire or conduct a nuclear strike on Washington, DC. Of course, most North Korean threats have an air of bombast to them, and should not be viewed literally. However, with the North testing a hydrogen bomb and coupling the recent test over Japan with the threat that the country “should be sunken into the sea,” North Korea’s actions are beginning to hit too close to home.

If North Korea is beginning to be able to marry threats with capabilities, and to couple them with tests that demonstrate the havoc it could cause, the question becomes: what should the international community do about it? For one thing, at the UN, the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program has historically received more attention than the development of the delivery systems needed to utilize those weapons. This needs to change.

There is one simple step that China could take to mitigate this growing threat. While China was reluctant to cut North Korea’s supply of oil in the new UN sanctions resolution, Beijing should seriously consider a temporary halt in oil shipments to send a clear signal to Pyongyang that it needs to back off from its constant string of tests. Cutting off oil supplies to North Korea will take time and force Pyongyang to explore alternatives such as coal liquefaction, but this is at least something that China can do to demonstrate its resolve.

In the long-term, however, there also needs to be a fundamental rethink of how the international community handles North Korea’s missile tests. As I previously noted:

Given the frequency of North Korea’s missile tests and the traditional slow pace of the UN Security Council’s response, it’s time to consider a different method. To do this, the United States should consider working with China and Russia to develop a new set of sanctions that would go into place incrementally for each additional test that North Korea conducts, while also leaving room to address other issues with the regime in Pyongyang. Without raising the level of sanctions after each North Korean missile test, there is little deterrent to stop the regime from continuing to move its program forward.”

While this is something that China and Russia would likely be reluctant to consider, what we do know is this – North Korea will conduct another missile test in the near future. The question is what the international community will do to try and prevent the regime in Pyongyang from perfecting its missile technology.

If China is reluctant to push North Korea further, it should also consider the costs of choosing not to utilize all of the leverage it may have with the regime in Pyongyang. In the past, China has said that it will not allow anyone to undermine its interests and start a war on the Korean peninsula. But the longer it holds back on fully using its leverage, the more China’s inaction risks ceding that possibility to North Korea by providing Kim Jong-un more opportunities to miscalculate.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The North Korean embassy in London. The UK maintains diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea Loses More Friends and Trading Partners

By Jenna Gibson

North Korea’s decision to shoot a missile over Japan and, just a few days later, to carry out its sixth nuclear test seems to have been the last straw for several countries around the world which had maintained some relations with the reclusive state.

In back-to-back announcements, both Peru and Mexico announced that they would be expelling the North Korean ambassador from their countries, although they stopped short of cutting off diplomatic ties altogether. Both countries said they would maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea, although neither has a physical embassy in Pyongyang.

“It’s inappropriate to maintain relations with that country,” Peruvian Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna told journalists after the announcement. “Though we haven’t broken off ties, by expelling him the level of diplomats in charge of relations is lowered.” According to the Asahi Shimbun, two North Korean diplomats will remain to run the embassy in Lima.

Egypt is also stepping up its pressure on Pyongyang, reportedly planning to cut off military ties with the North. Another Middle Eastern country, Kuwait, has announced that they would be executing a total ban on the shipping of North Korean goods, suspending North Korean commercial licenses, discontinuing North Korean work visas, ending remittances from North Korean workers, blocking North Korean loans from Kuwait’s state bank, and putting into place a total ban on direct flights to and from North Korea, according to Newsweek.

In Southeast Asia, the Malaysian Prime Minister announced during his visit to Washington, DC this week his intention to review the country’s diplomatic and trade ties with the DPRK, which have already been frosty following the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother Kim Jong-nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport. And the Philippines suspended all trade with North Korea in an effort to comply with the new UN sanctions — a sizeable move considering that the Philippines was North Korea’s fifth largest trading partner, conducting around 30 million in trade so far in 2017.

Despite its usual “Hermit Kingdom” moniker and increasing pressure to isolate and punish the DPRK for its provocations, North Korea has established diplomatic relations with 164 states, and maintains 48 embassies and six consulates around the world.

Some countries, like the United Kingdom for example, have continued to work with the North in hopes of exposing them to outside information instead of cutting them off. According the UK government’s website, “Our policy is one of critical engagement – making clear the views of the UK and the international community on the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme and proliferation activities and on its human rights record. We encourage the DPRK to understand and work with the outside world through educational and cultural exchanges.”

Despite the engagement and exchange side of its strategy, the UK has taken a tough stance on the DPRK of late, strongly supporting several rounds of new sanctions in the United Nations and is going ahead with the launch of the BBC’s new Korean language service, which will broadcast news into North Korea (much to the chagrin of the North Korean government).

But these recent moves by Peru, Mexico, and others may signal a tipping point. With an increased pace of missile testing over the last few years and a sharp spike in provocative behavior in the last month, countries around the world must ask themselves if they can still afford to maintain military, economic and diplomatic ties with the regime in Pyongyang. Of course, as long as North Korea can lean on Beijing, which provides the vast majority of trade and aid to Pyongyang, these moves from other countries around the world may only have a small, albeit symbolically significant, impact.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Laika ac’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-In and French President Charles de Gaulle, both 360 presidents

Les Présidents: Moon Jae-in, Charles de Gaulle, and the 360 Presidency

By Mark Tokola

Historical analogies are fraught. Things never happen exactly the same way twice, and assuming they do can be misleading.  Nevertheless, historical parallels can offer useful perspectives.  For example, an advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in who recently visited Washington remarked that one element of President Moon’s philosophy for South Korea was a “360 degree defense.”  This sounds commonsensical; nations prudently should be prepared to defend themselves against potential threats coming from any direction.  But, for those old enough to remember, it also pushed the memory button of French President Charles de Gaulle’s January 1968 announcement that France would pursue a policy of “defense tous azimuts,” or all-around defense. The parallels between Moon Jae-in and Charles de Gaulle do not stop there.

Charles de Gaulle always had an uneasy relationship with the United States. On one hand, President de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO and obstructed European integration.  On the other, he was the U.S.’ strongest ally during the Cuban Missile Crisis, accurately predicted German unification and the fall of the Soviet Union, and presided over an unparalleled period of French economic growth.  Presidents Kennedy and Nixon both held de Gaulle in high regard.  He has topped polls as “the greatest Frenchman of all time.”  (One assumes Napoleon did not earn the accolade because of being dictatorial and, in the end, losing.)  The lesson of the comparison between de Gaulle and Moon may be that it is possible, perhaps even advantageous, for the United States to have an ally with which it sometimes disagrees.

One contextual parallel between the two presidents is that Moon and de Gaulle both came to power following a domestic political crisis. The collapse of the ineffective French Fourth Republic in 1958 was followed by the de Gaulle presidency and the founding of the Fifth Republic.  Charles de Gaulle promised, and delivered, constitutional reforms which have endured.  Moon Jae-in similarly has taken power following a crisis of governance and has promised constitutional reform.

Charles de Gaulle generally is perceived as a conservative, but on the economic front he favored state intervention in the economy, including a move to rein in the largest French companies by requiring that they share profits with their workers.  By 1964, France had overtaken the UK economically for the first time in modern history.  In a similar vein, Moon Jae-in has promised government action to boost economic performance, and his attitude toward Korea’s largest corporations, like de Gaulle’s, is that they should contribute more to the well-being of the citizenry.

But it is in the foreign policy arena that the comparison might be most instructive.  De Gaulle believed that the Soviet Union posed a threat to Europe, but also believed that it was necessary to engage with the Soviets as well.  He traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964 in an early attempt at détente, all the while believing that the Soviet system had no future.  De Gaulle did not have complete faith in what he considered a weakening American extended nuclear deterrence, and eventually concluded that France needed an independent nuclear arsenal with which it could defend itself.  De Gaulle chose to balance France’s U.S.- and UK-oriented Atlanticism with a European “Continentalism” that he defined as stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals.  He sought the closest possible ties with France’s old enemy, Germany, and held out the possibility of cooperation with Russia (de Gaulle never called it “the Soviet Union”).

It appears that Moon Jae-in has a similar instinct towards broadening the foundation of South Korea’s foreign policy stance.  He favors an enduring, close relationship with the United States, but also believes that South Korea could simultaneously have a positive relationship with China in a more closely integrated Asia, balancing a continuing U.S. Pacific-orientation with a new Asian “Continentalism” among countries of the region.  Continuing the parallel between the two presidents, Moon may view Japan with the same skepticism with which de Gaulle viewed the U.K., cooperating when in both countries’ interests but watching it with a wary eye. Though he doesn’t share de Gaulle’s uncertainty about the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

De Gaulle’s assertiveness in promoting what he perceived as France’s national interest sometimes strengthened and sometimes undermined American diplomacy. But, taking the long view, it also demonstrated that countries that share basic values regarding democracy, free markets, and human rights generally will support each other’s strategic direction and foreign policy interests — even if they disagree from time to time on specific policies.  Similarly, the U.S. government may not always agree with President Moon’s perception of South Korea’s national foreign policy interests.  This may not lead to the most comfortable kind of alliance, but it is still one that can endure, even beyond the temporary issues raised by North Korea.  It is worth recalling that throughout their long and sometimes awkward history, the United States has never been at war with France or with South Korea, a rare distinction.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Images from wikicommons and arif_shamin’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.