Tag Archive | "Six Party Talks"

The China-Russia Security Council Resolution Part 2: Chinese Motives

By Stephan Haggard and Liuya Zhang

In the last post on the proposed China-Russia Security Council resolution, we showed that exempting just two product categories—seafood and textiles—would restore as much as 50% of North Korea’s exports. But that does not capture the full extent of China’s ability to keep the regime afloat, even if we set aside the inevitable leakage in the sanctions regime (on that issue, see the August 2019 interim Panel of Experts report).

Harder to estimate is the relief that would come from lifting the ban on labor exports and the repatriation of North Korean workers that was supposed to happen at the end of 2019 (but didn’t; see here and here). U.S. estimates—and they do not strike us as hyperbolic—are that the total foreign exchange earnings from 100,000 workers abroad could total as much as $500,000,000 a year.  These, and other, invisible receipts are much harder to track than trade in goods.

In addition, we have the particular interest that China—and South Korea—have in boosting tourism to the country. Since Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang in June 2019, Chinese tourism to North Korea has increased exponentially. It is hard to think that the uptick is coincidental. Global Times reported that in the wake of Xi’s visit, trains and airlines heading toward Pyongyang were crowded with Chinese tourists and that the large surge of Chinese tourists has even strained capacity at the country’s hotels and resorts; as is well-known, tourism is a pet project of Kim Jong-un’s.  The South China Morning Post has estimated that total Chinese tourists were expected to increase from 200,000 to 350,000 in 2019 and would contribute $175 million to the regime’s coffers this year. South Korea has also seen tourism as a potential icebreaker. In his New Year’s conference press, President Moon signaled that South Korea is seeking to allow individual tours to North Korea and believes that they can be structured in a way which does not violate sanctions.

The resolution offers little insight into the crucial question of what China would like to see in terms of material steps by North Korea on the nuclear front. It does, however, contain a surprising procedural proposal: almost in passing, it mentions that the Six Party Talks or some similar multilateral process be revived. Yet if we treat the proposal as a menu—with rolling back of seafood, textile and labor exports as an opening bid—it offers a measurable metric of what China would be willing to concede to make progress.

Given that the proposal is largely moot given U.S. opposition, what might we glean about Chinese motives? A close read of some of the Chinese press coverage offers some clues. The first is simply an effort to reduce risks of North Korean going rogue. As Kim Jong-un’s self-imposed year-end deadline for the resumption of talks approached, Beijing no doubt had concerns about a resumption of provocations. Press accounts suggest that China has a long list of things to worry about: Kim Jong-un’s visit to Mount Paektu; ongoing short-range missile tests; the convening of the 5th Plenum; North Korea’s UN representative Kim Sung’s remarks on “denuclearization is no longer on the table”; and the widely-cited remarks on delivering a “Christmas gift” to the United States. All of these developments suggested the potential escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and even a return to the crisis atmosphere of late 2017.

Second, however, were a complex of strategic motives. Beijing clearly wanted to seize the high ground—including with its North Korean client—by drawing a sharp contrast between its role in maintaining the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the adverse effects of the ongoing U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign. While openly blaming the U.S. for its inaction on implementing the DPRK-U.S. Singapore Joint Statement or assuaging North Korea’s legitimate security concerns, Beijing could position itself as the honest broker to the conflict.

Finally, there is some evidence that the Chinese leadership views Trump’s approach to North Korea with a significant dose of skepticism. Beijing is perfectly aware of the uncertain political environment in Washington arising from the impeachment process and the onset of the presidential election cycle. The leadership appears to believe that it will be hard for the U.S. to take the initiative in such circumstances because it would be seen as a sign of weakness, including by Democrats; there was previously at least some hope that the U.S. might respond positively.

At a deeper level, though, Beijing appears convinced that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy reflects only a tactical adjustment rather than a strategic policy change. “Maximum pressure” continues to dominate the “…and engagement,” as the policy was initially articulated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. For China, the Trump administration might well have taken the initiative on bilateral talks with North Korea to create a personal talking point for the president in the short-run, while continuing the effort to suffocate the North Korea regime using the sanctions tool in the medium or long-term. Under this interpretation, China was clearly aware that the U.S. was unlikely to support the proposal, but it could nonetheless play a useful signaling function not only to the U.S. and North Korea, but to the Moon administration as well.

In this regard, the draft resolution does implicitly argue for a possible course of action that seems relatively costless to us. Given the risks of tinkering with extant UNSC resolutions, the easiest route to partial sanctions relief could run through Seoul. A starting point would be to grant the Moon administration more room to pursue its rail and road surveys. Such surveys may expend resources, but they are marginal and by no means constitute a commitment to proceed; in any case, such a survey would take 18 months if not more to complete. Any further progress would depend on North Korean actions on the nuclear front. Outlining in more concrete detail what a settlement could entail in terms of infrastructure investment seems to carry little risk. Moreover, it would do at least something to ameliorate the strains in the alliance arising from the differences between the Trump and Moon administrations about how to move forward.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. Liuya Zhang is a master student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego. She received her Bachelor Degree of Arts from Fudan University and Master’s degree of International Studies from Seoul National University. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

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The China-Russia Security Council Resolution Part 1: Sanctions Relief

By Stephan Haggard and Liuya Zhang

As 2020 gets underway, it is hard to avoid the obvious: diplomacy surrounding the Korean peninsula is stuck. The core question that divides the parties is—as it has long been—a tactical one. Are North Korea and the United States willing to trade incremental moves on the nuclear issue for partial sanctions relief?

The answer to this question rests largely on choices in Pyongyang and Washington. But for the first time since the collapse of the Six Party Talks, we have a document that outlines the Chinese and Russian positions in fairly granular detail: the draft UN Security Council resolution from the two countries that was leaked to CBS News in mid-December. It is worth a closer look not because it will go anywhere; the U.S. quickly shot it down. But it suggests limits to Beijing’s tolerance for the maximum pressure campaign and offers up an alternative, or at least complementary, diplomatic approach. A key element of that approach: it would give the Moon administration more leeway; indeed, President Moon signaled early that he supported the initiative and even dispatched a high-ranking aid to make the case to Security Council members.

We analyze the draft resolution in two steps, first looking at its economic provisions and then more closely at possible Chinese motives.

The preamble puts an overly-rosy light on a bad situation by welcoming the U.S. willingness to talk, North Korean restraint with respect to nuclear and missile testing and American restraint with respect to exercises. But buried in the preamble is also the strange claim—periodically revisited by Beijing–that UN Security Council resolutions were not intended to have “adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.” A concern with adverse humanitarian effects is warranted; the National Committee on North Korea has long monitored potential adverse effects of sanctions on humanitarian operations in the country. But given that targeting sanctions solely on the leadership is effectively impossible, it is not clear how sanctions would work were the Chinese injunction given a broad interpretation.

Nonetheless, this claim sets the stage for the substantive proposal that UNSC sanctions be partially rolled back. The operational component of the resolution is dedicated to a series of measures that could be undertaken “in light of the DPRK’s compliance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” The menu includes:

  • Granting the Moon Jae-in administration more leeway with respect to the inter-Korean rail and road projects, presumably by allowing South Korea to conduct a more extensive survey than the one conducted in late-2018 (our colleagues at Beyond Parallel have the best review of the technical issues);
  • Outlining in detail—at the four-digit HS code level—a series of industrial goods that should be granted exemptions from export controls, ranging from nails and needles, to appliances, to wider categories such as agricultural machinery and “automatic data processing machines and units thereof, such as panel computers and micro computers” (HS 8471).
  • Increasing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK and making it easier to secure humanitarian exemptions.
  • And finally, tucked away in operative paragraph 8, reference to particular provisions of four prior Security Council resolutions in which China finally agreed to the sanctioning of North Korea’s commercial exports. Interestingly, the products in question are not mentioned directly, but by reference to the relevant resolutions and their operative paragraphs. But the measures include lifting sanctions against statues (UNSC 2321 para. 29); seafood (2371, para. 9); textiles (2375, para. 16) and labor exports (2375 para. 17 and 2397 para. 8).

It was this last set of proposals that caught our attention, as sanctions against marine products, textiles and apparel constituted important hits to the ability of DPRK to earn foreign exchange. How much, exactly? The two figures below suggest the magnitude of the Chinese proposal. The first figure shows textile and seafood exports in dollar terms against total exports from 2012 through 2019; the second shows the share of those products in total exports for the same period. As can be seen, measures against these sectors—in conjunction with those against mineral exports—led to a virtual shutdown in North Korean exports to China in early 2018 (if the data are to be believed; we return to that issue below).

But what is interesting is the nature of the trade in these goods prior to that point. As can be seen, these two main product categories are trending up toward about 50% of total exports at the time they were shut down.

In the next post, we look at other economic measures that are afoot to support North Korea and possible Chinese motives for the initiative.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. Liuya Zhang is a master student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego. She received her Bachelor Degree of Arts from Fudan University and Master’s degree of International Studies from Seoul National University. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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A North Korea Agenda for the Trump-Xi Summit

By Troy Stangarone

On April 6-7, U.S. President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort for their first summit meeting. While the two leaders will likely discuss a range of issues including trade, climate change, and China’s development of artificial islands in the South China Sea, perhaps no issue will be higher on the agenda than how to handle the challenge presented by North Korea.

In little more than a year, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, a space launch that is likely cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, and has begun testing second strike delivery systems such as road mobile missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. A threat that only a few years ago seemed distant is rapidly becoming imminent.

As the two leaders discuss how to deal with North Korea, there are five issues that they should discuss:

What Steps to Take After a New North Korean Nuclear or ICBM Test

In light of the frequency of tests by North Korea over the past year, Kim Jong-un’s own suggestion that North Korea is in the final preparations for an ICBM test, and recent satellite imagery suggesting a new nuclear test could be imminent, a North Korean nuclear test or ICBM test in the near future is highly likely. How President Trump manages the test by North Korea will be one of the initial challenges for his leadership and his ability to manage relations with China.

During the Obama administration, the United States and China worked productively in the UN Security Council in recent years to heighten the sanctions that North Korea faces as a result of its continued weapons development. However, after each test the introduction of new sanctions at the United Nations could take up to three months. President Trump should instead try to get ahead of the issue and discuss with President Xi the types of new steps that each country could support once the next North Korean test takes place.

The last set of UN sanctions hinted at potential areas for future UN resolutions such as the use of North Korean labor overseas and technical cooperation with other countries. There should be a discussion of whether these or other areas should be future targets for the next round of sanctions so a new resolution could be passed quickly.

When and How to Return to Talks

President Trump should not avoid what is likely to be a key ask for President Xi, that the United States return to talks with North Korea to lower tensions and try to resolve the nuclear issue. Absent war, dialogue will be the eventual path for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, so the United States and China should begin the process of finding common ground for negotiations. The question ultimately comes down to timing, format, and having a willing partner in North Korea.

President Trump should make clear that the United States is willing to return to negotiations with North Korea as long as the nuclear issue is on the table and that the United States is willing to discuss other issues. However, he should also make clear that the United States will not pursue direct negotiations on the nuclear issue as North Korea has recently suggested and that any talks should have a time limit to preclude North Korea from using the talks as a tool to advance its nuclear and missile programs while relieving the pressure on the regime.

Having the U.S. and China on the same page – and ideally South Korea, Japan, and Russia – will be key to finding a resolution and precluding North Korea from playing one country off of the other.

Defending against North Korea’s Weapon’s Development

Since announcing the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea, China has sought to utilize diplomatic and economic pressure to convince Seoul to reverse its decision. Beijing has created the impression that it is more troubled by South Korean defensive measures than North Korea’s continued nuclear and ballistic missile development.

While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already raised the issue of Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea for the deployment of THAAD, President Trump should raise the issue again with President Xi in their meeting and emphasis that as long as North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons and missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and the United States, Washington and its allies will continue to take the necessary measure to defend themselves.

While the appropriate level of defensive measures will likely be a contentious issue with President Xi, it will be important for President Trump to emphasize that those measures are only necessary because of North Korea’s continued weapons development.

Addressing North Korea’s Cyber and Online Activities

While North Korea’s weapons programs, and coal on the sanctions side, have received the most attention, one area that is growing increasingly problematic is North Korea’s cyber and online activities. The Sony hack is perhaps the most widely known North Korean cyberattack, but North Korea has also attacked South Korean media, banks, and government offices. Most recently, there are reports that North Korea may have viewed U.S. and South Korean war plans by hacking the Ministry of Defense in South Korea.

Beyond cyberattacks, there is growing evidence that North Korea was behind the cyber theft of $81 million from the Bangladesh’s central bank, which was a broader attempt to steal $500 million. This is just one of numerous banks North Korea may have attacked. Studies also indicate that North Korea uses online gambling and other sites to earn over $850 million per year in hard currency, which is only a few hundred million less than North Korea earned exporting coal to China in 2016.

The issue is relevant to the discussions between President Trump and President Xi for two reasons. First, North Korean efforts to either steal or earn money through the internet offer a significant opportunity to curtail North Korea’s foreign currency earnings. Second, North Korea is known to base some of its cyber operatives in China and their continued operation in China is likely in contradiction to the new cyber codes of conduct reached between China and the United States in 2015.

How the United States Will Handle Secondary Sanctions

The use of secondary sanctions on entities working with North Korea is something that many in the United States have called for and that China has largely resisted. The meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi may present an opportunity to find a way to address both concerns. President Trump should make clear that it is time to begin cracking down on Chinese banks and firms that help to facilitate North Korea’s evasion of international sanctions. However, he should also present it as an opportunity for President Xi. Last year, the Obama administration provided China with information regarding Dangdong Hongxiang that enabled China to open its own investigation into the company’s activities.

While China has always resisted foreign involvement in its domestic law enforcement, the Trump administration could offer to follow through with providing China with additional evidence of companies that are clearly engaged in sanctions busting and enabling China to shut them down. However, the administration should also make clear that should China fail to do so, the U.S. will take action on its own.

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

Image created by Juni Kim, Program Manager and Executive Assistant, from photos on flickr Creative Commons by Gage Skidmore and GovernmentZA’s photostreams.

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16 Issues for the Trump Administration to Consider in Developing a New North Korea Policy

By Troy Stangarone

As the United States transitions from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, there is significant uncertainty regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. During the campaign, President-elect Trump broke from many of the orthodoxies shared by Republicans and Democrats in the area of foreign policy and since the election has begun to potentially shift gear on some of his campaign pledges. His ultimate foreign policy is still largely unknown.

One area where there will be significant interest in the new administration’s future policy direction will be North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasing efforts to develop both a workable nuclear warhead and multiple delivery systems has made North Korea a problem that will need to be addressed by the Trump administration. While it is still unclear if President-elect Trump will merely tweak existing policy or implement policies that rethink U.S. foreign policy and specifically how the United States addresses the challenges presented by North Korea. If the Trump administration were to consider a significant overhaul of U.S. policy on North Korea, here are 16 issues the incoming administration should consider in developing a new policy:

North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Priorities

The most important question for the new administration to consider is where North Korea is on the list of foreign policy challenges? While North Korea’s growing weapons programs should make it a priority, other challenges could come to dominate the administration’s agenda and push North Korea down the list. Any White House where decision making is centralized can only handle two or three significant foreign policy issues at a time. If North Korea is not in that top tier, the administration will have to set a policy more in line with an issue of lesser priority. However, if the Trump administration is willing to delegate authority, more issues could be handled simultaneously.

Beyond shaping the approach and resources dedicated to addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, the level of priority the administration gives to resolving the crisis will impact how it handles other foreign policy issues. For example, if North Korea is a top priority for the Trump administration, it impacts how the administration handles relations with China. Most experts consider China a key player in resolving the nuclear issue, something President-elect Trump himself stated during the election. If the administration decides to push for a resolution to the nuclear issue early in its term it will need to consider developing a China policy that will elicit the cooperation needed rather than one that will push China to use North Korea as a wedge against the United States. As with much in life, foreign policy is about tradeoffs and compromises because everything cannot be achieved at once.

Where is North Korea in Terms of U.S. Priorities with China?

If North Korea is among the United States’ foreign policy priorities as one key consideration, the same is true for how the Trump administration will prioritize North Korea among its other challenges in its relationship with Beijing. During the campaign, President-elect Trump ran on a platform of bringing back U.S. jobs and getting a fair deal for American workers. While not a major campaign issue, the South China Sea and China’s military modernization are likely to remain a priority for a Trump administration. Another major issue in the relationship is climate change and the Paris accords. Since election, President-elect Trump has suggested that he might seek to reshape the United States relationship with Taiwan. If the new administration places a priority in its relations with China on addressing trade relations and seeks to withdraw the United States from the Paris accords, it might find Beijing less than willing to help address North Korea. If it seeks to redefine relations with Taiwan, Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on North Korea might be even less.  At the same time, if it prioritizes North Korea over other issues in its relations with China, it may need to refrain from engaging in trade disputes with China or other controversial issues to elicit Beijing’s support for a more effective stance against Pyongyang. Again, the priorities in the U.S. relationship with China will impact the type of North Korea policy the United States will be able to pursue.

How Likely China is to Squeeze North Korea?

China is seen as the key to the North Korea issue. While China has worked with the United States to pass tougher new sanctions on North Korea after each of its nuclear tests this year and has, to an extent, implemented those sanctions, there is a perception that China is not doing as much as it could or not stringently enforcing sanctions. If the new administration views China as the key, how likely is China to truly squeeze North Korea and what might incentivize it to do so? Similarly, if China will not truly squeeze North Korea and the new administration determines that the United States does not have acceptable leverage to shift China’s position that would necessitate a different approach to the North Korea than if the administration determines that China will squeeze North Korea or that it has sufficient and acceptable leverage to do so.

Does Russia Have a Role to Play?

Much like President Obama early in his administration, President-elect Trump has suggested that the United States should have better relations with Russia. While Russia was part of the Six Party Talks, it was not a primary player in the negotiations. Could Russia play a larger role or could it be a potential spoiler?

If relations with Russia improve, the administration will need to determine if Russia could manage a larger role. However, if Russia demurs, it will be important to consider how Russia could impede the process. In the two most recent UN sanctions debate Russia held up the process to water down the sanctions. If China were to come on board for stronger sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil, Russia could serve as an alternative source. While Russia has its own reasons for not wanting to see North Korea’s program advance, Putin has shown a willingness to back outsiders when he thinks it could bring a geopolitical advantage. The one challenge for Russia would be keeping North Korea in line, as it has historically been a less pliant client than Russia’s more recent efforts at developing useful clients.

What Type of Deal is the Trump Administration Willing to Cut?

In the past, the United States has sought the complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament of North Korea. Should that remain the goal of the United States? Should the United States pursue only a freeze or a final deal that addresses the nuclear issue and a wider range of issues? In light of prior efforts to negotiate with North Korea, should Pyongyang also be prohibited from utilizing nuclear power or should it be allowed to maintain certain aspects of a civilian nuclear program? What elements should be in any agreement with North Korea? Should it only cover the nuclear program or should it include elements such as a peace treaty ending the Korean War? What type of concessions would the administration be willing to make to North Korea to secure an agreement? These are just a few of the elements of a potential deal that the administration will need to consider.

What Would a Trump Administration Be Willing to Trade Away?

The art of any good deal is finding a way to meet the needs of the negotiating parties in a manner that is acceptable to all involved. Over the last three decades the complexity of what is acceptable for North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan has kept a comprehensive deal out of reach. If the Trump administration decides to enter into negotiations with North Korea, they will have to determine what they are willing to give Pyongyang in return for it abandoning its nuclear program.

In the past, there has been an assumption that North Korea wanted some combination of recognition by the United States, security guarantees for the regime, and energy and economic assistance. In regards to security, North Korea has often called for the end of U.S. troops on the peninsula and the abdication of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While the administration should not trade away items which would remove the ability of South Korea and Japan to defended themselves against North Korean aggression after any deal, it will need to give consideration to what hard choices it is willing to make to reach an agreement. If it is unwilling to take minimal steps such as provide some type of security guarantee or recognition of the regime, a policy other than negotiation will likely be needed.

The Importance of U.S. Allies to North Korea Policy

In the campaign President-elect Trump broke from long-standing U.S. foreign policy and suggested that he saw relationships with allies as more transactional in nature than as part of a broader relationship where the United States will live up to its commitments to defend allies. Since the campaign, some of that rhetoric has been walked back, but in dealing with North Korea the administration will need to determine how it views alliances and what their role is in tackling the North Korean nuclear issue.

If the Trump administration is going to “re-baseline” U.S. alliances as incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has suggested, the administration will need to determine what advantages does having supportive allies in South Korea and Japan bring in terms of military and diplomatic contributions. What would be the costs to the United States of pursing a more independent or transactional policy in dealing with North Korea, specifically if the U.S. was no longer willing to assure allies that their concerns would be met. What is the tradeoff in having willing partners in dealing with North Korea as opposed to partners who might become more aggressive in pursuing their own interests solely if the U.S. were to as well?

What Are the Military Options?

As North Korea continues to make advancements on its missile program calls for the United States to take preemptive action before North Korea is able to demonstrate or utilize an ICBM that could reach the United States will likely grow. What are the merits and potential downsides of either blowing up a North Korean ICBM on the launch pad prior to liftoff or shooting a North Korean ICBM down in flight? If the U.S. choose to preempt a launch how would North Korea respond and what are the prospects for escalation? If the U.S. were to shoot down a North Korean ICBM, a successful intercept would likely be a strong deterrent, but what would be the consequences of a failure to intercept the missile?

Perhaps more boldly, are there other military options on the table such as covert operations that could slow the program or remove key individuals that could change North Korea’s decision structure. If you engage in military operations beyond those that are clearly defensive in nature, such as shooting down an ICBM on a trajectory for the United States or one of its allies, what are the prospects that China would be drawn into any escalation in conflict?

For all of these options, the administration would need to determine if they are willing to accept the risks and costs that any military option from shooting down an ICBM to engaging in a new war would entail not only for the United States, but also for our allies in the region. The bottom line for the administration will be is there a military option that has a high degree of success that will also minimize the potential for significant retaliation on the part of North Korea.

Is the Obama Strategy Working?

There is a tendency for incoming administrations to follow an “anything but” the previous administration policy, especially if the prior administration is one of the opposing party. Sometimes a change of course is good policy, but sometimes as President Obama found with aspects of President George W. Bush’s terrorism policy the process of governing means embracing some of your predecessor’s legacy. President-elect Trump has already demonstrated on healthcare policy that he is willing to keep some of the Obama policy in place, even on an issue that is unpopular with his party, so there is no reason to believe that a Trump administration would simply abandon the policy of the Obama administration.

What are the key characteristics of that policy? First, maintain tight policy coordination with U.S. allies. Second, increase the alliance’s defensive capabilities. Third, increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions and other measures? Fourth, work to discourage those who support the North Korean regime from doing so. Lastly, be open to negotiations with North Korea if those talks are designed to address the nuclear issue. If this is a sound approach, rebranding may be all that is needed. If it is not working, what steps might be more successful?

Is the Iran Example a Useful Model?

President-elect Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as one of the worst deals he has ever seen. However, during the election, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s team had made clear that they saw it as a model for dealing with North Korea. While more nuanced than this, the Iran model is the idea of imposing crippling economic sanctions to force North Korea into negotiations over its nuclear program.

In the case of Iran, it was allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program and the agreement was only for ten years. North Korea has stated that they will not negotiate an Iran style deal, but the final details of the agreement point to issues that the Trump administration will need to consider in any negotiation. Will the administration keep to the standard of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program? Or, should Pyongyang be allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program as was the case with Tehran. This was part of the Agreed Framework, but North Korea ultimately cheated on that deal. Alternatively, is there already a mismatch in terms of the value of North Korea’s nuclear program? Pyongyang likely believes it should get a better deal for actual nuclear weapons and the administration likely believes that North Korea should receive more stringent conditions for having developed them. Also, the administration will need to thoroughly consider in what ways North Korea differs from Iran, to see how useful any lessons from that experience may be. If the two situations are different enough, there may be few useful lessons. Alternatively, if the Iran model is not a good one, what would a different approach look like? These are the types of questions the Trump administration will need to ask as it decides whether or not to utilize the Iran precedent.

How Stable is North Korea?

Since the end of the Cold War there have been predictions that North Korea was near collapse. While many other Cold War regimes have collapsed, or undertaken significant economic reforms such as China and Vietnam, North Korea has taken only minimal steps towards reform.

Historically stability mattered because the sense was that, if the regime was on the verge of collapse, there was little reason to negotiate with it or make a substantial offer for the nuclear program. However, the Trump administration should consider the regime’s stability for two reasons. If the regime is stable, pushing it in the hopes of collapse may not yield the desired result, but a stable regime could be in the position to reach a deal, even if it is not an optimal one for the United States and its allies. If the regime is unstable, negotiations will have little effect as a weak regime would be unable to make the political choices needed to give up or significantly reduce the nuclear program and survive. Depending on the perception of the stability of the regime, it impact whether engagement or pressure is likely to be a more useful tool, while the wrong assumption could lead the administration to develop a flawed policy.

How Susceptible is North Korea to Sanctions?

North Korea is less connected to the global economy than most other nations and survived a famine in the 1990s in which over a million North Koreans may have starved to death. Iran’s economy was much more open to the global economy and therefore more susceptible to sanctions than North Korea, and it still took three years after sanctions were placed on Iran’s oil to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear program.

If North Korea is less susceptible, the Trump administration will need to consider what that means in regards to timelines for action on North Korea. The administration will also need to give consideration to what areas North Korea may be most susceptible to sanctions and what types of sanctions would be most likely to be effective in that area. While the focus has been on coal as in recent years as that has been North Korea’s primary export, there may be other areas or types of sanctions the administration should consider. For example, imposing more sanctions on financial institutions that have dealings with North Korea. At the same time, it will need to consider the costs that the regime is willing to bear to complete its nuclear program before the sanctions force it to do otherwise. A nation is willing to let a significant portion of its population starve to death is likely willing to bear a significant cost.

Will North Korea Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

Negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is only possible if North Korea is willing to engage in talks on the dismantlement of its nuclear and missile program. For much of the Obama administration the belief was that North Korea was not. Discerning North Korea’s intentions helps to shape whether the Trump administration should seek to engage or pressure Pyongyang.

If the Trump administration reaches the same conclusion as the Obama administration, seeking talks with Pyongyang would be of minimal utility. Instead the administration would need to develop a program designed to create conditions which might change the regime’s perspective, similar to the case of Iran, or take steps to enhance U.S. and allied defense so as to deter North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. Both of these options could also be taken simultaneously.

However, if the regime believes that North Korea would be open to a deal, talks should be the primary course of action. The key for any negotiations would be finding a way to ensure that they were not a play for time by North Korea to finish its nuclear program while reducing pressure on the regime.

Why Does North Korea Want Nuclear Weapons?

The North Korean regime has suggested that it has developed its nuclear weapons program to protect itself from U.S. hostility, but the reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms still remains a goal of the regime. Determining whether the regime views the nuclear weapons as the key to its survival or a tool to achieve political ends could have a significant influence on how a policy is shaped. If nuclear weapons are synonymous with regime survival in Pyongyang, it may be impossible to provide the assurances needed to convince them to give up their weapons. However, if the nuclear weapons are for a political end, demonstrating through pressure that even with nuclear weapons that goal is not achievable without threatening the regimes survival might create room for negotiations. It is a difference that could shape the policy the administration chooses.

Are Human Rights Part of the Equation?

In the last year the United States has placed sanctions on Kim Jong-un and his sister for the regime’s violation of human rights. It is unclear how the Trump administration will approach the issue of human rights, but in the case of North Korea they will have to decide if the issue of human rights and sanctions related to North Korea’s human rights violations should be linked to North Korea’s nuclear program. If the administration does wish to link the issues, it will need to consider whether human rights sanctions encourage or discourage North Korea from engaging on the nuclear program. At the same time, it will have to determine if it would be willing to remove the sanctions to make progress on the nuclear issue in the absence of progress on human rights in North Korea.

If You Break North Korea, Are You Willing to Fix It?

In the run up to the Iraq War, Colin Powell famously cautioned President George W. Bush that if “you break it, you own it.” A similar consideration should apply to any aggressive sanctions policy or kinetic action that the Trump administration decides to take in regards to North Korea. In the case of North Korea, regime stability will always likely be a question. How much pressure can it stand before collapse does ensue? So far, China has pushed back on any sanctions that it thought might truly endanger the regime. Nevertheless, China could miscalculate the pressure the regime can withstand, or preemptive military action could precipitate a conflict that leads to collapse. If there is good reason to believe North Korea is about to strike either the United States or its allies, action will need to be taken. However, if the administration decides to pursue significant pressure, it also need to consider what actions it would take if the pressure proves to be too much. Would it be willing to contribute to rebuilding the North under a unified Korea, and would it be willing to actively support South Korean claims to sovereignty over the North in the face of strong Chinese resistance. If so, then more aggressive measures may be advisable, but if not a more gradual approach may be called for with North Korea.

While this is not necessarily an exhaustive list, it is designed to show how complex the North Korean nuclear crisis is and how different understandings of issues can influence how policy would develop. To see this, we look at how different outcomes would occur given variations on two issues: North Korea’s willingness to negotiate and China’s willingness to pressure North Korea.

If the Trump administration believes that North Korea will not negotiate on its weapons program and that China will not truly pressure the regime, than that would argue for a policy of increased deterrence. However, if the administration believes that China would pressure North Korea further but North Korea will not negotiate, that impacts policy more generally towards China to ensure that Beijing remains onboard in pressuring North Korea. The caveat, of course, is where then North Korea fits in regards to the administration’s priorities. If North Korea is the priority, that then affects how the Trump administration approaches China on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea or other issues. Ultimately, solving the North Korean nuclear issue is more complex than simply a question of whether to sanction the regime more or engage in negotiations.

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 Uri Tours photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Korea and the Trump Administration: Confirmation Questions for State and Defense Nominees

This is the first in a two part series looking at the potential questions senators should ask Trump Administration officials on North and South Korea policy during their confirmation hearings. The second part looking at the nominees for Commerce and USTR can be found here.

By Mark Tokola

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution requires that the President make appointments with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Confirmation hearings are part of Senate’s process of giving “advice and consent.”  Although the confirmation process has become increasingly partisan, including for appointments to the Supreme Court, it still provides an opportunity for a public discussion of the policy views of incoming Administration officials as well as an examination of their personal backgrounds and qualifications.  Confirmation hearings also provide an early window into how Administrations see the world, what their priorities are, and how they intend to deal with challenges.

Those who have been through the confirmation process, and even those who just watch it, are often frustrated with the time-consuming speeches of the questioners, leading questions intended to push a policy line rather than to learn anything from the candidate, unnecessarily evasive or picayunish answers from the candidates, and the always unhelpful approach of “Just answer the question ‘yes’ or ‘no’!”  The shortage of time also means that important topics never have the opportunity to surface.

For the purposes of those with a particular interest in Northeast Asia, and Korea in particular, following are questions that we would love to see asked and answered during the upcoming confirmation hearings.  Even if they do not come up in the hearings, we will still be watching to see how the Trump Administration will deal with them over time:

For Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Designate (Confirmation Hearing: January 11-12):

  • What is your diplomatic strategy in regard to North Korea?  Will you offer bilateral talks or do you support reinvigorating the Six-Party Talks framework?
  • Recent policy has been to not allow daylight between the United States and South Korea on North Korea policy. Will that continue in the Trump Administration? If the next South Korean government seeks a new approach to North Korea, what would the U.S. stance be?
  • In the absence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, how will you strengthen economic ties with our Pacific allies?  Would you consider a bilateral trade agreement with Japan similar to the one we have with Korea?
  • Do you support the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a means of liberalizing trade within Asia or do you see it as a threat to U.S. interests?
  • There have been plans to replace our 1962-vintage U.S. Embassy in Seoul for over thirty years.  Are you finally going to carry through with the project?

For James Mattis, Secretary of Defense Designate (Confirmation Hearing: January 12):

  • Is there a “red line” for the North Korean nuclear weapons program that would trigger a U.S. action?  Wouldn’t it be advisable to let them know where they must stop?
  • Given modern military capabilities, how really necessary is it to have U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan?  If a fair burden sharing agreement cannot be reached, would you be willing to withdraw them?
  • Apart from questions of funding, what roles do you foresee for our Pacific allies?  What tasks should the Korean, Japanese, Australian, and New Zealand militaries assume?  Shouldn’t they be helping with Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China Sea?

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

Photo from lukexmartin’s photostreamn on flickr Creative Commons.

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Another Way of Dealing with North Korea: Negotiation Without Engagement

By Mark Tokola

Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”  He was reported to have said this at a White House luncheon in 1954, so he by then had plenty of experience with both war and negotiation.  This sentiment, or something like it, is what people have in mind when they urge engagement with North Korea.  It would seem, therefore, like common sense that the Trump Administration should offer talks with Pyongyang to decrease tensions being caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  However, as David Straub detailed in an excellent paper and December 2016 talk at KEI, it isn’t so simple.

I won’t rehearse Straub’s argument here; you really should read it for yourself.  The two most frequently voiced objections to a strategy of engagement are: (1) We have already done that.  In 1992, 1994 and 2005, North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program following negotiations.  There have been bilateral negotiations, multilateral negotiations, and signed documents.  The long history of engagement and even agreement with North Korea has not stopped them from nuclear and missile development.  To be fair, nor has isolation, although it seems clear that sanctions have slowed North Korea’s weapons development by making it more difficult for them to obtain materials, components, and foreign assistance;  (2) Engagement would have to imagine a mutually acceptable outcome.  With the United States and South Korea insisting on nothing short of denuclearization, and with North Korea enshrining the acquisition of nuclear weapons in its constitution and as a fundamental national objective, there would not appear to be much to talk about.

I would add a third problem with pursuing an engagement strategy with North Korea: Kim Jong-un appears unwilling or perhaps even unable to engage in international negotiations.  He has rejected invitations to Beijing and Moscow and has never even left North Korea during the five years of his rule.  His most significant diplomatic engagement has been a meeting in Pyongyang with former basketball player Dennis Rodman.  Whether due to a feeling of political insecurity at home, fear of experiencing lèse-majesté abroad, or a single-minded focus on domestic rule, Kim Jong-un has shown no interest in diplomacy apart from threatening other countries with death and destruction.  His ‘great ruler’ governing style makes it unlikely that he would entrust an envoy with any role other than that of being a parrot – a parrot who would get all of the blame and none of the credit for the outcome of the talks. This would hardly be an enviable diplomatic assignment.

How do we negotiate with a country with which we cannot engage?  To paraphrase the old Zen koan, “What is the sound of one country negotiating?”  The pattern up to now has been to react to North Korean nuclear and missile tests with additional sanctions.  One alternative might be to change the model from ‘misbehavior-followed-by-punishment’ to ‘good behavior-followed-by-reward,’ but with the additional element of certain, negative consequences if there is further misbehavior.

The Trump Administration could make an announcement (following consultations with South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, i.e. five of the six parties of the Six Party talks) along these lines:

“We are not making a diplomatic proposal today, we are simply stating a fact.  If North Korea refrains from testing any nuclear devices or long-range missiles starting today, in six months we will drop sanctions on non-ferrous metals, and will increase the amount of coal which North Korea can export by fifty percent.  If a year passes without testing, we will further ease sanctions and will consider economic assistance to North Korea.  If, however, nuclear or missile testing takes place during the next six months, we will further reduce the amount of coal North Korea is allowed to export by  fifty percent, and will add textiles to the list of sanctioned items.  Our implementation of these steps is not dependent upon a reply from the North Korean government.  We will act as we have described based upon their actions, not their words.”

An obvious objection to this proposal is that North Korea could use the time to continue improvements in its nuclear weaponry, just without the testing.  It would also relieve North Korea of the pressure of sanctions without their having committed to anything.  On the other hand, foregoing nuclear or missile testing would deprive North Korea of having a proven nuclear arsenal, an advantage for the United States, South Korea and their allies.  The reduction of sanctions could be set on a long enough time scale to allow for a reduction of tensions over time – perhaps three to six years, perhaps longer, depending how they were calibrated.  If the U.S. were able to reach an agreement in the UN Security Council, there would be nothing to restrain the UN from delaying the timetable, or introducing new sanctions, in the event of another sort of North Korean provocation, including a cyberattack as long as any agreement included the necessary provisions.

A wise, old-school American diplomat once observed, quoting Sun Tzu, that it is dangerous to back an adversary into a corner: “I would build my opponent a golden bridge over which to retreat.”  One of the advantages of rewarding or punishing North Korea based on their actions rather than on their negotiating stance is that it would not require them to publicly disown their prior, loudly stated objectives.

Undertaking such a strategy, in public or in private, would only be a partial solution.  It would not address issue such as verification, denuclearization, or other pressing problems such as North Korea’s crimes against humanity.  It might, however, be a start.

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

Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Understanding North Korea’s Fifth Nuclear Test and Sanctions

By Troy Stangarone

North Korea has conducted its fifth nuclear test, the second test in less than a year. In combination with its efforts to advance its ballistic missile programs and develop second strike capabilities, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it is committed to developing a usable nuclear warhead in spite of international pressure to halt its programs and return to talks. In light of this, the question remains how the international community should respond.

Initial indications are that the latest test was in the range of 10 kilotons, roughly twice the explosive yield of North Korea’s fourth test in January and 5 kilotons less than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Unlike the January test where North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, this test does initially seem to indicate a significant step forward in Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.

Is THAAD Responsible for North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test?

While China has condemned North Korea’s latest, it also suggested that South Korea’s decision to deploy the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) had contributed to North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test. Given that THAAD is a defensive system and that North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs predate the decision to deploy THAAD by decades, this is clearly not the case.

As with prior nuclear and missile tests, the most significant driving factor for North Korea was likely the fact that it had reached a point where its technical research required a test to determine if a real breakthrough had been made in its weapons development process.  North Korea’s test has demonstrated that the regime has not been significantly affected by sanctions to date, has made the strategic decision that the cost of sanctions does not outweigh the strategic benefits of a verifiably workable nuclear weapon.

The Challenge for China

From China’s perspective handling the North Korean nuclear issue is complex because it has different objectives at play. In the current case, perhaps the only positive side to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is that Pyongyang refrained from conducting the test during the G-20. While North Korea test-fired three ballistic missiles during the G-20, a nuclear test while China hosted world leaders during a major summit would have been seen as a more direct slight to China.

Moving forward, China will face pressure to do more to convince North Korea to return to talks and increase its enforcement of sanctions.    China will find it difficult to manage its twin goals of joining the international community to rein in North Korea while at the same time thwarting sanctions that could threaten the regime’s stability.  This could become increasingly difficult if North Korea has made the strategic decision to develop its nuclear program despite the costs. At the same time, with each additional test North Korea backs China further into a corner in which more of its policy options become unpalatable.

One policy challenge for China may now be how to gracefully back down on its demands on THAAD. With this most recent nuclear test, in combination with the most recent missile tests, South Korea is likely to push forward with THAAD as soon as possible in light of the clear strategic need to respond to North Korea’s growing threat.  China will want to avoid the appearance that its inability to stop South Korea from deploying THAAD constitutes a rupture between Beijing and Seoul.

What About Sanctions?

The international community has largely responded to North Korea’s nuclear tests with a combination of sanctions and efforts to return to talks. After the January nuclear test, the United Nations, the United States, and other countries imposed a series of new sanctions on North Korea. The goal of these sanctions was to increase pressure on Pyongyang to convince the regime to halt its tests and return to negotiations over its nuclear and missile programs. While it is too early to determine if UN Resolution 2270 and other sanctions will be effective in the long-run, there are some clear loopholes that the international community could look to tighten as it considers how to shape any new sanctions resolution in response to the latest nuclear test.

Since 2270 was implemented, there has been little change in North Korea’s trade with China. North Korean exports to China in the second quarter of this year were only down 4 percent compared to the first quarter (not seasonally adjusted) and 14 percent year-on-year. This likely reflects a decline in the export price of coal rather than the effect of sanctions, however, because of an exception placed in the sanctions allowing for the continuation of “livelihood” trade. Whether China is taking an overly broad definition of livelihood trade or they need to see a direct tie between trade and the weapons program before cracking down, the fact is trade has continued largely uninhibited. Tightening up or removing the “livelihood” exception would be one step that the international community could take to increase the pressure on North Korea.

Two other areas where the sanctions could be improved relate to the Rason free trade zone and to luxury goods. During the last round of negotiations, Russia specifically sought to have Rason exempted from the sanctions so it could build its trade of resources, such as coal, from its Far East to South Korea and Japan. However, South Korean sanctions prohibit ships that have traveled to North Korea in the last 180 days from entering South Korean ports. With this in mind, closing this loophole to preclude future trade would be significant.

If sanctions are going to convince North Korea to back away from its weapons programs, they need to filter through the political system in a manner that will place pressure on the regime to reconsider its course. In a democratic state, this mechanism would largely be the political process, whereby groups impacted by the sanctions would lobby the government for changes and potentially elect a government more willing to seek accommodation with the international community. As North Korea does not allow either free speech or democracy, sanctions need to be able to impact the wellbeing of those in the decision-making process.

One mechanism to achieve this would be to limit the importation of luxury goods that maintain the lifestyle of the elite members of the regime. UN sanctions to date have largely allowed states to provide their own interpretations of what luxury goods are. That has largely failed to stem the flow of luxury items into North Korea. Developing a comprehensive list of prohibited items would be a significant step forward, though any list must be accompanied by strict inspections of all cargo to North Korea as required by 2270. Otherwise, a luxury goods ban could have the unintended effect of strengthening the regime by increasing its control over the flow of luxury items.

Another area that could face scrutiny is North Korea’s use of overseas laborers to generate income for the regime. While there have been reports that North Korea generates significant income from the laborers, the figures are likely significantly smaller than the $2.3 billion figure that has been reported. Additionally, banning the export of North Korean labor may not be the best way to approach this issue. Instead, approaching the issue of North Korean workers abroad from a human rights perspective and requiring states hosting workers from North Korea to respect their rights may be more effective in pressuring the regime. At the same time, the UN should require quarterly reporting of the number of North Koreans working in each member state.

Finally, the international community should reconsider putting a ban on aviation fuel for North Korean flights. This was originally on the table during the discussions over 2270, but was removed due to Russian objections. Not only would this put a dent in North Korean revenue from its state airline, Air Koryo, it could also help cut down on any smuggling that passengers who may be carrying illicit or luxury goods back into the DPRK.

While there are other potential areas for sanctions, the experience with the livelihood provisions of 2270 demonstrates that the process of implementation is the key to building pressure on North Korea to get them to return to talks. At the same time, the process of increasing pressure on Pyongyang is also likely to be lengthy. In addition to closing loopholes on existing sanctions, much of the work needed to close off North Korea’s illicit activities will require the painstaking work of finding the types of front companies exposed by the Panama Papers. Unfortunately, this means that even if sanctions eventually work, we are likely to see more tests before they do.

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 the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Five Questions About A Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un Conversation

By Troy Stangarone

In recent interview with the Reuters, Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump indicated a willingness to speak with Kim Jong-un. While many of stories on Trump’s comments suggested that he would be willing to meet with North Korea’s leader, in his brief comments to Reuters on the matter he actually said “I would speak to him. I would have no problem speaking to him.” What this actually means is unclear, though the suggestion is not out of the mainstream of U.S. precedent in dealing with adversaries. However, Trump’s comments do raise a series of questions in regards to the conditions under which he would be willing to speak with Kim Jong-un.

In principal, there is nothing wrong with speaking with Kim Jong-un. Resolving the standoff over the nuclear issue will require reaching an agreement that Kim Jong-un can sign off on and at some point that may require direct communication. During the Cold War, summit meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev played a key role in reducing tensions and achieving arms reductions between the two super powers. All of this took place after President Reagan had referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire.

More recently, President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign included North Korea among a group of countries whose leaders he would be willing to meet with unconditionally. While he has not meet with Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un, he wrote to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2009 indicating a willingness to improve relations and in 2014 in regards to cooperation in fighting ISIS and to nudge the Ayatollah to conclude a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. In early 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei responded to President Obama’s correspondence. After announcing that the U.S. would restore relations with Cuba, President Obama became the first U.S. president to meet with the leader of Cuba in 50 years at the Summit of the Americas. In both of these circumstances, the context mattered, as it would with any outreach by a potential Trump administration.

However, that lack of detail from the interview does raise five questions about how Trump, if elected president, would reach out to Kim Jong-un?

How would Trump try to speak with Kim Jong-un?

While there have been some suggestions of a meeting, Trump’s remarks leave open a wide range of possibilities beyond an in person meeting. This could be as simple as a letter addressed to Kim Jong-un. In addition to President Obama’s letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, both he and President Bill Clinton wrote letters to Kim Jong-il.

While a letter to the leader of North Korea, would clearly be within U.S. precedent, it seem like something Trump would be unlikely to do. However, Trump’s comments could merely be indicating that he is willing to engage in a dialogue with him. This could be as traditional as having his administration open new talks with North Korea or arranging a phone call with Kim Jong-un.

When would Trump speak to Kim Jong-un?

The timing of any discussion with Kim Jong-un would also be significant. Would Trump seek to speak with Kim Jong-un early on to try and jumpstart negotiations or towards the end of any discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program to try and seal a final deal? Any conversation early in the process would run the risk of being pocketed by the Kim regime and utilized as a propaganda coup.

Would Trump consult with other leaders in the region?

This would be a key question for U.S. regional diplomacy. Park Geun-hye has refrained from holding a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping has refrained from meeting with him as well despite China being North Korea’s closest ally. Would Trump consult with Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing before undertaking any initiative to reach out to Kim Jong-un? Without sufficient consolation and buy-in from key stakeholders in the region, a move to reach out personally to Kim Jong-un could weaken efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

If Trump did meet Kim Jong-un, where would a meeting take place?

If Trump were to decide to meet Kim Jong-un in person, where would a summit take place? Would he be willing to travel to Pyongyang or would he look for a neutral location such as Switzerland where Kim Jong-un studied?

President Obama’s first meeting with Raul Castro was at an international gathering, the Summit of the Americas. To lessen the international significance of a meeting, would Trump favor meeting Kim Jong-un at an international gathering where the meeting would be simply one among many? Kim Jong-un was invited by both Russia and China to their recent celebrations commemorating the end of the Second World War, but ultimately declined to attend. However, as Kim Jong-un has yet to travel anywhere internationally, it raises the question of how feasible a meeting at an international gathering or a neutral location might be.

Any summit in Pyongyang would be highly problematic as North Korea would likely seek to utilize it for its own domestic purposes and run the risk of the meeting being sold, at least in North Korea, as the U.S. president coming to North Korea to accept the wisdom of Kim Jong-un’s position. Though, any summit meeting, in the absence of a nuclear deal, runs the risk of being utilized for domestic political purposes by North Korea.

What would be the content of any discussion?

If a conversation were to take place, the focus and extent of the discussion would be a key part of the process. While Trump gained notoriety for his book The Art of the Deal, the question would remain how involved Trump should be involved in detailed discussions as opposed to a more broader conversation with Kim Jong-un on the need for both sides have their negotiators work towards finding a deal. While there may be a temptation for Trump to become more deeply involved in talks with North Korea, it is difficult for any U.S. president to be well versed in all of the minutia that a negotiation on a topic as complex as North Korea’s nuclear program entails.

In any negotiation, a meeting or conversation with a U.S. president can serve as an important tool of diplomacy. However, it is also one that must be utilized effectively. Given the potential pitfalls of a dialogue with Kim Jung-un, a prospective Trump administration would first need to determine how and when to best utilize any meeting or discussion between Trump and Kim Jong-un while also balancing that discussion with the needs and concerns of U.S. allies and partners in the region.

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 Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Don’t Wish North Korea on China

By Mark Tokola

When discussing what to do about North Korea, it is often suggested that China should do more to pressure North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program, stop military provocations, create a more constructive relationship with South Korea, and improve the lives of North Koreans.  Chinese representatives usually say this is exactly what China is doing: China’s critics say that judging by the recent history of North Korean behavior, if that is what China is doing, it obviously is not doing it enough.

It is worth unpacking some of the assumptions behind the belief that China should do more to push North Korea in the right direction.  One is that China has leverage over North Korea.  Observers believe that China provides most of North Korea’s energy supply and consumer products, and around half of its food.  But does that translate into leverage?  It would only be leverage if, on one side of the equation, China was able to find consensus among its competing, internal views on the utility of pressuring North Korea, and on the other, if North Korea actually would change its behavior in the face of such external pressure.  Judging by how the Pyongyang regime survived mass starvation during the 1990s famine, it has shown a ruthless capacity to survive hardship.  The United States, which has shown more eagerness than China to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and its military provocations, has always targeted its sanctions toward members of the North Korean regime, not towards the North Korean people, who have suffered enough.  It is hard to imagine that the U.S. would want China to do what it would not, to squeeze North Korea by inflicting misery on the North Korean people by reducing their available amount of food and energy.

Taking the blunt tool of a general economic quarantine off the table, there obviously are other measures China could take to increase pressure North Korea: reducing investments in specific projects, showing official displeasure with North Korean behavior through government and official media statements, withholding official visits, and allowing UN resolutions aimed at condemning North Korea’s human rights record to pass without a Chinese veto.  There are signs that some of this is happening.  China’s support for North Korea has been increasingly muted and the tempo of visits has fallen.  It is also possible to believe without evidence that China has sent blunt messages to Pyongyang about which neither side has spoken about publicly.

From the Chinese perspective, calibrating pressure on North Korea is a delicate business.  There are reasons for China to do more.  It is desirable for China that North Korea end its nuclear weapons program.  As long as it continues, there is increased likelihood that South Korea, or even Japan, might feel the need to follow suit with nuclear deterrence of their own, a nightmare for China.  Being one of a few nuclear weapons states is better for China than being one of many, in Asia and beyond.  North Korea has shown interest in proliferating nuclear weapons beyond its border, to Syria for example, mostly for profit.  Beyond even that and despite the durability of its regime, no one would describe North Korea as a safe bet for long-term internal stability.  Turmoil inside North Korea could lead to a loss of control over its nuclear weapons storage.  For non-state actors to acquire nuclear weaponry on China’s borders would be an alarming development for China.  There is also a large intangible element in the embarrassment for China of being unable to prevent its one formal military ally, the DPRK, from becoming an international pariah through its crude and cruel behavior.  Contrasting the United States’ alliance with a prosperous and internationally respected Republic of Korea with China’s alliance with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China clearly has gotten the short end of the stick.  North Korea is China’s biggest foreign policy failure.

But, China also feels deeply restrained in how much it is prepared to pressure North Korea.  By far, the highest priority for China on the Korean peninsula is to maintain stability.  In case of a collapse of the North Korean government, the flow of refugees into China (into a region already heavily populated by ethnic Koreans); the risk of a possible, unwanted confrontation with the United States and its allies; the upheaval in China’s relations with South Korea (of increasing economic interest to China), and the financial and diplomatic distraction of having to be involved in negotiations regarding the future of a unified Korean peninsula, would be a series of headaches that China would wish to avoid.  The current situation in Korea is uncomfortable for China; but the collapse of the North Korean regime could be disastrous.  China is mindful, therefore, that whatever pressure it might apply on North Korea, it cannot be so much as to push the North Korean regime off the edge of the table.  Even though tough, North Korea could be brittle.  Too much Chinese pressure could break it.

Beyond tactical calculations of what China might do to nudge North Korea in the right direction, there is another, deeper assumption in the China-should-do-more thesis.  Assuming that China is responsible for North Korea’s behavior might be one side of a coin that on its other side posits that North Korea is within China’s legitimate sphere of influence.  Is that something to which we should agree?  If we want to assert that North Korea is “China’s problem,” is that very different from acknowledging that Ukraine is “Russia’s problem”?  One of the great foreign policy challenges of the 21st century is to decide whether China and Russia have a legitimate, recognizable national interest in being able to veto decisions made in smaller, neighboring countries.  It is an unsettled question.  It is an assertion they seem prepared to make, but there is a countervailing principle that all nations have the sovereign right to ally and trade with whom they choose.  That principle, enshrined in the UN charter, is probably too pure to survive untarnished in real-life geopolitics, but it is a good basis from which to begin diplomacy rather than to end it.  China has a responsibility to apply agreed-upon UN sanctions on North Korea and historic reasons to engage the regime in Pyongyang more than would be expected of other countries, but we should not wish North Korea on China.  The historic exercise of drawing lines on maps to determine who is responsible for whom usually has ended badly.  We all have a responsibility to have a policy towards North Korea.

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

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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Six Implications from the Mid-Term Elections for U.S Policy Towards East Asia

By Troy Stangarone

The 2014 mid-term elections will likely mark an important turning point in U.S. foreign policy and the Obama Administration. While presidential elections can bring in entirely new administrations, mid-term elections, especially those in the second administration of a presidency, can also serve as decisive moment. As administrations look to cement their legacy and power begins to wane as lame duck status sets in, administrations have often looked to foreign policy where they are less encumbered by Congress and have more freedom of action to build a legacy.

With Republicans winning a majority in the Senate for the first time in eight years, President Obama will face a Republican Congress for his final two years in office. The shift in power raises six issues for foreign policy in general and East Asia more specifically for the last two years of the Obama Administration.

Is Obama Already a Lame Duck?

Generally presidents look to foreign policy for achievements in their final two years in office and we should expect President Obama to do so as well. With a series of international issues to address such as a resurgent Russia and the crisis in the Ukraine, dealing with the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and North Korea, as well as economic issues such as trade policy, there should be a host of issues for the Congress to work on with the President.

Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman successfully worked across the aisle to advance important foreign policy objectives after mid-term losses with Reagan pushing arms control deals with the Soviet Union through Congress and Truman working with Republicans to lay the foundations of U.S. foreign policy after World War II with the passage the Marshall Plan and aid for Turkey and Greece.

However, as President Obama prepares to head off a series of summit meetings in Asia, the circumstances facing President Obama may be different than those Truman and Reagan faced. In exit polling from the elections, six out of ten voters said that they had negative feelings about the administration and for every two who voted to support it three voted to express opposition. This reservoir of concerns about the Administration’s policies could spill over into foreign leader’s perceptions of the Administration, as there are already suggestions may be the case in Europe and China. The international climate is different as well. China is seen by many as a rising power and the United States as one that is waning.  If President Obama is seen by foreign leaders as someone who is losing influence in the United States, coupled with concerns about the United States’ influence to play a role abroad, they pay less heed to him, making it difficult for President Obama to have similar foreign policy successes in his last two years in office.

The President’s upcoming trips to the annual APEC summit in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, and the G-20 summit in Australia may give us some initial insight into how President Obama’s new status is perceived abroad.

Governing the Senate Might Not Be So Easy

In initial comments after their victory Republicans touched on many of the right notes by expressing a desire to move past the “gridlock and dysfunction” of recent years and to be seen as a party that can govern, while the President identified trade, tax reform, and infrastructure spending as areas where he is willing to compromise with Republicans.

If Senator McConnell and Speaker John Boehner are able to work with Obama on an agenda that ends the gridlock, it could help to enhance the President’s position abroad by countering the narrative that his lame duck period has set in. With eyes soon set to turn to the 2016 elections, there is also an incentive for Republicans to demonstrate that they can do more than oppose Obama to enhance their chances of retaining the Senate and creating a favorable political environment for the Republican presidential nominee. However, governing the Senate might not be easy.

While Senator McConnell will likely have a 53 or 54 seat majority in the Senate, passing most legislation requires 60 votes to end debate. This means that Republicans will have to convince Democrats to cross the aisle to work with them to pass legislation. While some moderate Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin could be expected to work with Republicans, the traditional pool of Senators expected to face tough elections in the next cycle may not be very promising for Republicans.  With 26 Republicans, as opposed to just 10 Democrats, up for reelection in 2016, there is a strong incentive for Democrats to block legislation not to their liking in an effort to win back the Senate in the next cycle. While retirements and other factors could change this, perhaps only two or three of the 10 Democrats up in 2016 will face tough reelection battles. In contrast, six Republican Senators are from states that President Obama won twice. In fact, two GOP Senators up for reelection in 2016 represent states that have consistently voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since 2000. Additionally, if Republicans are unable to develop a working agenda with President Obama and he moves into a lame duck period, Democrats will increasingly become less beholden to the White House and more focused on their own interests and the next election.

Beyond the challenges Senator McConnell may face from Democrats, he will have to deal with obstacles in his own party. Senator Ted Cruz can be expected to continue to push maximalist positions which would make compromise with Democrats more difficult and potentially divide more moderate and conservative members of the party. There will also be the desire of potential presidential candidate such as Senator Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Rand Paul to make their mark.

Republicans Might Be More Helpful on Trade, But It’s Still a Difficult Road Getting There

The prevailing logic is that Republicans are more supportive of free trade than Democrats, so a Republican Senate means that the President is more likely to receive the new grant of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that is needed to push key trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) across the finish line. However, the likely path for TPP, let alone the conclusion of TPP and TTIP is likely to be more complex.

Given time constraints for the rest of the year, the current draft TPA legislation seems unlikely to pass in the lame duck session. If it does not, there are a series of factors that could impact the timing and passage of TPA. First, the current draft of the legislation was negotiated by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch. Two of the three will be gone in the next Congress. Chairman Camp is set to retire and be replaced by either Representatives Paul Ryan or Kevin Brady. Senator Baucus is now Ambassador to China, having been succeeded by Senator Ron Wyden as Chairman earlier this year. Much as Senator Wyden has sought changes in the current draft, either Congressmen Ryan or Brady could seek modifications as well, if only to address concerns within their own caucus as many of the new members are expected to be more conservative than the ones they are replacing. Regardless, both Representatives Ryan and Brady co-signed a letter to USTR urging passage of TPA before the conclusion of the TPP talks, even if it is an agreement in principle.

Another factor could be immigration policy. Republicans will be watching the President to see if he follows through on promises to issue an executive order on immigration. Given the mistrust of President Obama that already exists among Republicans, especially in the House, any executive order could undermine support for granting President Obama TPA.

There is also the question of whether Republicans are willing to grant President Obama a trade victory. If he were to conclude the TPP and TTIP, those would be victories for the President, and significant ones at that. If the new Congress does not start off on good terms with the President, there could be increasing reluctance to grant him significant victories if other Republican priorities are not being addressed.

Given the potential political need to possibly update the draft TPA legislation, TPA may not pass Congress until the middle of 2015. If that is the case, the conclusion and passage of TPP and TTIP will move increasingly close to the beginning of the 2016 presidential cycle, potentially pushing their passage to the next administration.

More Defense Funding, for the Pivot to Europe?

One of the Obama Administration’s signature policies has been the pivot, or rebalance, to Asia. However, while initially well received by Democrats and Republicans alike for its increasing emphasis on Asia, the policy has come under criticism for being too heavy on defense. There are also concerns that the cuts from sequestration have gone beyond what is needed to adequately fund the pivot.  At the same time, the key economic component of the pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, has moved more slowly than hoped, undermining the larger drive for increased economic engagement with the region.

There have also been concerns about the U.S. commitment to the pivot in Asia, where China seems to be the only country that believes it is taking place. With the U.S. being drawn back into the Middle East to deal with the troubles in Iraq and Syria and the deterioration of relations with Russia, questions have been raised regarding whether the U.S. has the resources to become more deeply involved in Asia.

With Republicans now in full control of Congress, efforts could be made to finally address the cuts to defense under sequestration, but some of those increases could go towards strengthening the U.S. commitment to Europe because of Russia’s increasingly aggressive approach with its annexation of Crimea and the increasing frequency of military flights into and around European airspace. While increased defense spending should lead to additional resources for the Asia-Pacific region, the push for the U.S. to deploy more resources to Europe and Middle East will likely continue to raise concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia.

Strategic Patience May Be Increasingly Challenged

President Obama came to office with a willingness to abandon adversarial relations with states such as North Korea if they would unclench their fists. Early in his term, North Korea rejected efforts at dialogue, though the Administration later tried to engage in dialogue with the Kim Jong-un regime when he came to power. However, despite this willingness to reach out to states such as North Korea, the Administration’s policy towards North Korea has largely consisted of what is often referred to as strategic patience.

Strategic patience is premised on the idea that the cycle of provocations followed by negotiations and rewards for North Korea to not engage in bad behavior needed to be broken.
Additionally, the United States could afford to wait out North Korea while its actions isolated it from its neighbors. However, as North Korea advanced its nuclear program through continued nuclear and missile tests, the policy has come under increasing scrutiny.

Without a Democratic majority in the Senate to defer to the administration’s policy preferences, North Korea policy could increasingly come under greater pressure from Congress. A Republican Senate is more likely to bring up legislation such as the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2014, which passed the House earlier this year. Should North Korea engage in further missile or nuclear tests, Republicans would likely place increasing pressure on the Administration to move away from strategic patience towards a stronger sanctions regime.

If the Nuclear Talks with Iran Fail, There Might Not Be Enough Political Capitol to Negotiate With North Korea

While the Six Party Talks have not met to discuss North Korea’s nuclear issue since the Bush Administration was still in office, the Obama Administration has pursued a diplomatic path to try and rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those talks are not directly related to the North Korean nuclear issue, but they could have an impact on the ability of the administration to pursue talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

If the talks, which are in the final months of an initial negotiation period, are successful they could serve as a demonstration to North Korea of the advantages if it engages in meaningful denuclearization talks with the United States and its partners in the Six Party Talks. However, should the talks with Iran fail or if Congress rejects any agreement reached in the talks, it is unlikely that that the Administration would have the political capital needed to try and advance talks with North Korea. Republicans are skeptical of the talks with Iran, and remain so in regards to North Korea. If the Obama Administration is unable to successfully conclude a deal with Iran, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to engage in meaningful denuclearization talks with North Korea prior to the next administration taking office in 2017.

Concluding Thoughts

As a result of the mid-term elections, the next two years should be a period of both opportunities and challenges for the Administration and Republicans in Congress that will help to lay the groundwork for the foreign policy debate for the next presidential election.  However, for policy towards East Asia there should still be a degree of continuity as, while Republicans and Democrats may have differing perspectives on some issues, they are largely on the same page when it comes to matters relating to East Asia.

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

Photo from The White House’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.