Tag Archive | "diplomacy"

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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New North Korea Sanctions: The Best that Could be Expected

By Troy Stangarone

After North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, there were expectations that the United Nations would pass a new round of sanctions that would potentially be debilitating for North Korea. Early discussions included bans on exports of oil to North Korea and cutting off North Korea’s use of overseas laborers to earn hard currency. Steps that far were always unlikely, but based on initial reporting of the expected measures in the new sanctions resolution and a review of a recent draft of the new sanctions resolution, the United States likely achieved the best result it could have hoped for in a new round of UN sanctions.

With the last round of UN sanctions having been passed only on August 5 and barely implemented, there was likely always going to be resistance to harsh new sanctions before member states had a chance to determine if the last round of sanctions were having an effect. It takes time for sanctions to take effect and states such as China and Russia most likely would not want to pile on a significant amount without knowing how the new sanctions would impact North Korea.

Additionally, complete bans on exports of oil to North Korea and the use of North Korean laborers were always unlikely, despite the serious nature of North Korea’s most recent nuclear test. While the Global Times and others suggested that China should end its supply of oil to North Korea if it tested another nuclear weapon, Beijing also has concerns about the long-terms stability of the regime in Pyongyang, concerns it is unlikely to let go of in the near future.  China wasn’t the only one to back off of the suggestion of cutting off North Korea’s oil supply — Russia also quickly dismissed suggestions of an oil embargo. Without Russia’s support both in the UN and as a potential supplier of oil to North Korea, stringent sanctions on oil were unlikely.

Banning the use of North Korean labor was also always a longshot. China and Russia are the two largest consumers of North Korean labor, and Russia in particular was unlikely to support a complete ban, as North Korea supplies an important source of labor in the sparsely populated Russian Far East.

That being said, the new resolution does move the process forward in terms of restricting North Korea’s ability to earn hard currency and to limit its imports of oil. Much as initial caps on North Korean exports of coal, the new resolution would place a cap on North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum at 500,000 barrels for the rest of 2017 and 2 million for subsequent years. Also similar to the coal caps, it would require states to report their exports to the United Nations on a monthly basis.

It also places a softer cap on exports of crude oil to North Korea, which China provides to Pyongyang as aid. The soft cap limits exports to the amount exported in the prior year, but since China does not report its exports of crude to North Korea and there is no reporting requirement for crude, there is still the potential for China to export more than would be expected to North Korea.

The new restrictions on use of North Korean labor, while a step forward, are also potentially exploitable. While it would prohibit countries from issuing work permits for North Korean nationals except for humanitarian purposes or for objectives consistent with prior UN resolutions, it also allows contracts signed prior to the resolution to continue. This means that we are not likely to seen a reduction in North Korean workers abroad soon.

The resolution also contains a ban on the export of North Korean textiles, potentially reducing North Korea’s earnings of hard currency by $800 million. While this will remove one of North Korea’s major remaining export items, textiles are also a labor-intensive industry. By banning exports of textiles, this also removes one potential tool for reshaping North Korea over time — developing a larger consumer base that can eventually pressure the regime internally.

While this may have been the best that could be achieved at the United Nations, it is disappointing that China and Russia would not support more robust sanctions against North Korea. While the new sanctions continue to restrict North Korea’s ability to earn hard currency, more should have been done in response to North Korea’s test of a thermonuclear device. By holding back on more stringent sanctions, China and Russia risk sending a signal to North Korea that it should not be worried about strict consequences for their actions.

Despite China and Russia’s reluctance to go along with more stringent sanctions, it is important for the United States and its allies to continue to maintain Moscow and Beijing’s cooperation. This is not a problem that the United States can solve on its own.

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 United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Responding to North Korea’s Sixth Nuclear Test

By Mark Tokola

Now that North Korea has defied warnings from the international community not to conduct a sixth nuclear test, including from its friends China and Russia, the challenge is, how to respond?  North Korea knows it has made a hugely provocative step.  The September 3rd test was by orders of magnitude larger than any of its previous tests, indicating a thermonuclear capability.  It comes after a relatively long pause, the last test was in September 2016.  It collapsed a tunnel, showing either by design or by mistake, that it was even more ‘successful’ than intended.  And the test came hours after North Korea broadcast a picture showing Kim Jong-un admiring, up-close, a nuclear warhead (or model thereof) designed to fit into a missile nose-cone.  North Korea must be expecting an international response, or if need be a unilateral response from the U.S., in consultation with South Korea.  What should that response be?

Russia has called for “immediate talks” and talks would be desirable if North Korea was prepared to offer anything, which it has not signaled.  The September 3rd test would seem to indicate that North Korea is still on its path of acquiring a credible, reliable nuclear weapons capability capable of striking the U.S. and its allies, and perhaps to gain a second-strike capability, before it will be willing to talk – if Kim Jong-un is willing to talk at all.  The international community has assumed that North Korea would eventually want to talk to see sanctions lifted.  There is a possibility that Kim Jong-un is relying on the sanctions to internally justify his weapons program.  In that case, Kim Jong-un would only want to talk for the purpose of being welcomed to the international nuclear club.

Following the September 3rd test, the main question is whether there can be a response stronger than the one North Korea undoubtedly expects.  The last, impressively tough, round of sanctions was not enough to deter North Korea from conducting its sixth test.  What kind of response would get their attention?  Among the options are a diplomatic response, an economic response, and a show of deterrence.

A diplomatic response could be to expel North Korea from the United Nations.  This is possible under the U.N. charter and would be a serious blow to North Korea because it cares about international prestige.  This response would show Pyongyang that it lacked any international support, including from Russia and China who could veto the expulsion if they chose.  The grounds are clear enough.  North Korea has repeatedly defied U.N. Council resolutions through its weapons program.  The U.N.’s patience should have limits.  China and Russia would be reluctant to expel North Korea from the U.N., but their patience should have limits, too, and they may prepared to go along with a diplomatic step rather than the alternatives.

An economic response may be to move beyond sanctions and to impose an economic embargo on North Korea, as has been advocated by former South Korean national security official Chun Young-woo.  If no degree of stepped-up sanctions have applied sufficient economic pressure, an embargo would be the last step in the escalatory chain of economic measures.  Would this cause the North Korean people to suffer as well as the North Korean regime?  It would, at least in the short run, but not as much as it would have in the past because of North Korea’s market liberalization of recent years.  Domestically produced food and other necessities would still make their way to the markets.  An embargo might even accelerate the pace of de facto privatization of the North Korea economy.  An exception could be made for medicines and other strictly humanitarian requirements.  It may be worth giving economic measures one last chance to work.

A strong deterrent measure might be to overfly North Korea with short or intermediate range U.S. or South Korean missiles.  North Korea has not hesitated to launch missiles over Japanese territories, so it cannot argue that there is a taboo against such a step.  The North Korean air defense system probably is robust enough that overflying North Korea with military aircraft would be too risky.  They probably would not have the ability to intercept a missile over-flight, and even if they did, the interception of a missile within North Korean air space would still show that its weapons program was not making North Korea any safer.

The goal is still to bring North Korea to a negotiating table.  A strong response to the September 3rd test may be more likely to make that happen than no response at all.

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

Photo from Russ Allison Loar’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Missiles Over Japan – What are the North Koreans up to?

By Mark Tokola

At 5:58 a.m. on August 28, North Korea launched what was probably an intermediate range missile that passed over Japan and landed in the Pacific after a flight of 1,700 miles.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “North Korea’s reckless action of launching a missile that passed over Japan is an unprecedented, serious and grave threat.”  Abe also said that he had spoken by telephone with President Trump and the U.S. and Japanese stances “are completely matched.”  Was this North Korean launch indeed unprecedented and what kind of threat does it pose?

This was not the first time North Korea has launched a missile that flew over Japan.  The first time was in 1998, when North Korea attempted to launch a satellite.  They claimed success, but because no satellite could be tracked most observers believe the launch was a failure.  It may have been significant that the 1998 launch was only a few days in advance of the 50th anniversary of North Korea’s independence from Japan.  In 2009, North Korea again attempted to launch a satellite with a missile trajectory that passed over Japan.  That launch also failed, with the missile falling into the Pacific east of Japan.  Since then, there have been other North Korean missile launches that have passed over the Japanese Ryukyu island chain

There are three aspects of the August 28th launch that qualify it as “unprecedented.”  First, North Korea has abandoned any pretense that their missile program is non-military.  It had claimed that its 1998 and 2009 launches were peaceful satellite launches.  Its 2017 launches are overtly for the purpose of threatening other countries.  Secondly, in 1998 and 2009, North Korea announced its launches in advance, providing warning to shipping in the areas where the boosters would fall.  The August 28th launch was a surprise, reinforcing its non-peaceful nature.  Finally, the site of the August 28th launch appears to have been near Pyongyang, rather than in the remote launch sites previously used.  This may have been a signal from Kim Jong-un that in any attempt by the U.S. to carry out a preventative strike, it could not assume it would be able to operate only in non-populated areas of North Korea.  There would be nothing surprising about Kim Jong-un holding his own population hostage.

We know facts about the August 28th launch, but its meaning is open to speculation.  One interpretation would be that Kim Jong-un is pushing the envelope further.  The previous ICBM tests had avoided Japanese air space by falling into the sea west of Japan. One could interpret the August 28th test as highly belligerent and provocative, intended as a sharp, unyielding response to U.S., South Korean, Chinese and Japanese warnings.  It also could be taken as a rebuff to Secretary of State Tillerson’s public remarks that North Korea may be showing restraint, possibly creating an opening for negotiations.

Those looking hopefully for signs that North Korea may be signaling a tough negotiating posture rather than spoiling for a fight will point out that the missile’s path over Japan seemed intended to avoid populated areas passing over a northern stretch of Japan that is relatively sparsely populated.  They may also point out that this was an intermediate missile test, not that of another ICBM designed to reach the continental American homeland.  It also fulfills North Korea’s promise to react to U.S.-South Korean military exercises without threatening Guam, the most recent target of its rhetoric.

The August 28 test will upset Japan, but is likely to irritate China as well.  Giving Japan reasons to enhance military cooperation with the U.S., to strengthen its anti-missile defenses, and to work more closely with South Korea all run counter to Chinese interests.  North Korea’s actions not only roil the U.S.-Chinese relationship, but the Chinese-Japanese relationship.

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

Photo from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Secondary Sanctions on North Korea Should Be About More than China

By Troy Stangarone

In late June, President Donald Trump signaled a shift in the administration’s North Korea policy when he tweeted that “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.” Little more than a week later the administration placed sanctions on a Chinese bank and shipping company and two individuals. More recently, there are reports that the administration will continue to increase the pressure on China by placing sanctions on additional small banks and firms doing business with North Korea. While sanctioning Chinese entities that are evading sanctions to do business with North Korea is a key step, the administration should continue to go after non-Chinese actors engaged in sanctioned activities with North Korea.

Shortly before shifting track on China, the administration sanctioned two Russian firms for their ties to North Korea’s weapons programs. Now there may be an interesting new case to consider. Recent investigative reporting by NK News found that Singaporean based OCN (S) Pte Ltd., which built a new commercial development in North Korea and operates two high-end department stores in Pyongyang, has ties to Office 39 and is involved in importing luxury goods banned under UN sanctions. If the claims are corroborated, it could expose OCN to U.S. sanctions. Under tools available to the administration OCN would be subject to U.S. sanctions for both its ties to Office 39, which is an entity sanctioned by the United States and the United Nations, as well as it aid in the facilitation of luxury goods imports into North Korea.

There are three good reasons for the administration to pursue sanctions on entities not based in China. First, for sanctions to be effective against North Korea they need to deprive the regime not simply of access to resources, but the effects need to be felt by the ruling elite in Pyongyang. While North Korea will not give up its weapons due to a few less bottles for cognac or a decrease in other luxury goods, limiting the regimes access to luxury items is one means to create discontent among the ruling elite with the regime’s policies. If the burden of sanctions is only borne by the broader population, it will have little impact on North Korean policy.

Second, while China receives the majority of the attention on sanctions enforcement, as North Korea’s most significant trading partner should, it is not the only source of revenue and goods for the regime. If the administration is able to utilize secondary sanctions against Chinese entities to either restrict North Korean trade or induce greater Chinese cooperation, it also needs to be closing off alternative sources that might be able to provide the regime in Pyongyang a lifeline in a crisis, if not to the same degree as China. Focus on China is necessary, but not sufficient for sanctions to work.

Going after sanctions violating entities in other countries sends a signal to those doing business with North Korea that they are not safe merely by not being a Chinese entity.  It also begins to constrict Pyongyang’s options.

Lastly, targeting third countries provides political space for both the United States and China. China has long opposed the use of U.S. domestic laws to achieve foreign policy goals. However, while China may oppose the method, if the evidence for the violations is solid and firms other than those in China are targeted it may provide space for Beijing to begrudgingly continue to cooperate with the United States. For the United States, it demonstrates that Washington is going after any and all entities that are violating sanctions on North Korea and avoids leaving the appearance of solely targeting China. Maintaining space for Chinese cooperation is important as the United States eventually will need China’s cooperation to deal with North Korea.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from aotaro’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The North Korean ICBM Test: A Significant Step, But Still Just a Step

By Mark Tokola

It usually takes some time to figure out the details of what a North Korean missile test has accomplished – what type of missile it was, how it performed, its capabilities – but from the initial information regarding North Korea’s July 4th missile test, it appears that they have successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

The accepted technical definition of an ICBM is a missile that can travel 3,400 miles. The North Koreans test fired their missile to fly a short range but with a high trajectory; it landed off the west coast of Japan. If the trajectory was flattened out, the missile in theory could have flown over 4,000 miles, enabling it to reach Alaska but not the lower 48 states.

Conducting an ICBM test is a significant step in North Korea’s weapons program, but it is just a step. Kim Jong-un’s stated objective is to develop a reliable ICBM that can carry a nuclear warhead to the American homeland. The July 4th missile did not demonstrate that kind of range, and there is no evidence (yet) that North Korea has a nuclear warhead that could be carried by an ICBM. We shouldn’t downplay the significance of this test, but calling it a “game changer” may be an overstatement.

The true importance of the July 4th test is the timing – following a series of other missile launches in 2017, it is clear that North Korea is not slowing the pace of its quest for nuclear weaponry that can threaten the U.S. Further, Kim Jong-un has crudely described it as a “gift for the American b******ds,” implying it was timed for Independence Day. The language choice shows that the North Korean regime sees no hypocrisy in using such language about other countries while having a hair-trigger sensitivity to slights to its own national dignity. The test also comes on the eve of a G20 meeting, demonstrating North Korea’s desire to be in the international limelight.

Perhaps the most important fact about the timing of the North Korean ICBM test is that it comes on the heels of the first visit of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Washington, where he spoke clearly of his desire to engage North Korea in dialogue. If North Korea had any interest in demonstrating an openness to President Moon’s overture, it would not have conducted an ICBM test only days after President Moon’s public remarks. We should all hope that North Korea would be responsive to a South Korean initiative to defuse tension, but the July 4th test makes it hard to believe that there is any basis for that hope. North Korea seems unresponsive to China’s efforts to defuse tensions, and even less so to South Korea’s initiatives. North Korea seems single-mindedly focused on trying to acquire a reliable ability to credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack — truly a high stakes gamble on North Korea’s part.

Still, it is not too late for a diplomatic solution. That would be in the best interest of South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States – and even for North Korea. That diplomatic path may be narrowing, and it will only be possible if South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and others are able to maintain a common front against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. There is some evidence that sanctions are beginning to bite – which may be also be contributing to Kim Jong-un’s rush. As the world’s leaders gather for the July 7-8 G20 summit in Hamburg, watch for signs of unity or division to see how the international community may handle this growing threat.

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

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

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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.