Friday, February 11, 2005

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Kim's not making many friends

If, as speculated in my last post, Kim Jong Il thought that his nuclear announcement and withdrawal from six-party talks would drive a wedge between the US and the other members of six-party talks, he appears to have miscalculated.

CNN reports that North Korea has repeated its demand (made over the past couple of years) for direct bilateral talks with the United States on this issue. [UPDATE: Deb Riechmann reports for the AP that Scott McClellan rejected this demand at the White House press briefing.] Andrew Salmon reports in the International Herald-Tribune that the six-party talks haven't gone well for the DPRK:

It is a long-running North Korean strategy to try to engage the United States in bilateral talks, believing that such meetings would improve the isolated country's international status and help it obtain bigger concessions. In the six-nation talks, which also include China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, North Korea has increasingly found itself facing countries, including its allies China and Russia, who are critical of its nuclear ambitions.

THat same report also makes it clear that North Korea's latest gambit has not gone down well in South Korea.

If Seoul is upset, however, Japan is even more so -- and they are upping the ante with a clear and specific sanctions threat. James Brooke explains in the New York Times:

Faced with North Korea's declaration that it has nuclear weapons, Japan's Prime Minister performed a deft political kabuki today, urging his bellicose neighbor to join disarmament talks, while letting the clock run on a new law that will bar most North Korean ships from Japanese ports starting March 1.

"I understand calls for imposing sanctions are growing," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters in Sapporo, about 600 miles across the Sea of Japan from North Korea. "But we have to urge them to come to the talks in the first place."

Japan, Russia, China and South Korea all urged North Korea today to return to talks designed to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal and its weapons assembly line....

[O]f the five nations seeking to disarm North Korea, only Japan is taking new steps that will punish North Korea economically.

An amended Liability for Oil Pollution Damage law requires that all ships over 100 tons calling at Japanese ports carry property and indemnity insurance. A seemingly bland piece of legislation, this law was drafted with North Korea in mind. In 2003, only 2.5 percent of North Korean ships visiting Japan had insurance.

Japan is North Korea's third largest trading partner, after China and South Korea. The insurance barrier is expected to hit North Korea's ports on the Sea of Japan, a dilapidated, economically depressed area, far from Pyongyang, the nation's showcase capital. In recent weeks, only one North Korean ship, a passenger-cargo ferry, is known to have bought insurance.

The insurance barrier will be felt at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the world's largest fish market, where North Korea is a major supplier of snow crabs, sea urchins and short neck clams. For North Korean fishing boats, Japan is the best market in the region.

"It will hurt, it will pinch, it will be felt by North Koreans who are significant," said Chuck Downs, an American expert on Korea who wrote "Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy."

"This will have a major impact on people who are on the snow-crab gravy train," Mr. Downs said. "They are making more money than the drug runners, than the diplomats. It is one of the few lucrative things you can do if you are North Korean."

On the import side, North Korea has become a major importer of used consumer goods from Japan, a country where recycling taxes are high. Next Wednesday is the birthday of North Korea's reclusive dictator, Kim Jong Il, a time when Communist functionaries traditionally dispense to party loyalists such gifts as rusting bicycles or hand-me-down refrigerators from Japan. But if North Korea's rusting scows are blocked from Japan's ports, the next birthday of North Korea's leader may be marked with a new austerity.

Read the whole article -- the U.S. and South Korea are ambivalent at best about the sanctions lever. At first glance, this would seem surprising: the best outcome is if North Korea backs down before March 1. Some people believe that the worst outcome, however, is Japan implementing sanctions on a defiant North Korea. I don't agree -- these sanctions will hurt the DPRK elite where it lives, in that it restricts hard currency access and consumer goods that only the elite can afford. This lever should be enough to get them back to six-party talks.

UPDATE: For more, the BBC has a round-up of the regional press reaction. The Christian Science Monitor has a round-up of global press reaction. Their most intriguing link is this Hamish McDonald story in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A debate has begun in policy circles as to whether Beijing should go further and propose an amendment to the 1961 mutual security treaty, to remove pledges of military assistance in the event of attack.

The treaty's second article says both sides "promise to jointly take all possible measures to prevent any country from invading either of the contracting parties. Whenever one contracting party suffers a military attack by one state or several states combined and therefore is in a state of war, the other contracting party should do all it can to offer military and other aid".

The undercutting of China's defence guarantee is part of a delicate carrot-and-stick approach by Beijing to edge North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, into verifiable nuclear disarmament in return for a new security deal with the US and its regional allies, along with economic aid.

posted by Dan on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM


Don't forget that NK receives a good chunk of its foreign exchange from the Korean community living in Japan. All the Japanese government need do is put controls on that, and NK will squeal.

Nothing steels the Japanese psyche like NK nukes. While SK may play around with its Sunshine Policy, the Japanese will play hardball. That could include an announcement that the Japanese are considering a revision of their "no nukes" pledge, which would in turn PO China.

It's the Cold War all over again!

posted by: Scott Kirwin on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

This guy has no hand to play. He can take his nukes and stick them up his ass. What is he going to do, launch one? The next day the whole country will be a smoking ruin. He wants to survive, not go up in smoke. Sanction the crap out of him until the regime collapses or he joins the real world and trades disarming for assistance. His game is getting old, while I am anything but a Bush fan I think a hard line on him is essential.

posted by: Andrew on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

I never thought I would read the phrase "the snow-crab gravy train."

posted by: praktike on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Kim does not need friends; all he needs is sponsors. If and when China decides to put the hammer down, real progress in dealing with the DPRK will begin.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Bah, you're all missing the obvious despite the post facto autopsy of Hussein's reasoning. Hussein kept up the posture of WMD as a form of strategic ambiguity in order to attempt to create a deterrence against outside attack and maintain inside control.

While decades of Iron Curtain rule anda decade under the sanctiosn regime for Iraq should have taught that one can never count on internal economic collapse to bring down totalitarian governments, there are some here who foolishly believe that economic sanctions or spontaneous collapse is imminent.

No what is important is power. As it turns out the economic reforms that Kim is enacting are hurting - not the common people but starting to hurt the power structure he relies on. This economic turmoil, not the kind that hurts the little guy but the kind that disturbs the power hierarchy, is what is dangerous to a totalitarian government.

Therefore Kim Il Jung wants to steal a march on Rice, which he did, and moreover create an increased tension in order to bring his own ranks into line. The lesson of this is NOT that NK is on the verge of internal economic collapse, but that Kim's hold on his own power structure despite assassinations and other measures taken in the past year or so is weakening. In order to increase his hold he needs the increased tension from raising the stakes with the US.

Didn't you silly gits learn anything from your failures of reasoning over Saddam? Once I could excuse as naivete, but a second time and it's shaping up to be folly.

posted by: oldman on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

I agree with oldman, but stress that this doesnt automatically put NK in any stronger of a position. KIJ is gambling that international and internal pressure will force Bush into bilateral negotiations. This isnt going to work, with the net result being increased pressure on NK from the international community. Its a simple matter now for Rice to go to China and SK and say 'look, they are the ones being unreasonable' and its hard to argue with that. When they are forced back into multi-national negotiations they will both lose face and leverage.
Reyling on NK to implode is a bad strategy. We need to pressure the regime as much as possible to facilitate cooperation or collapse.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Is there any concern for the West with regard to a rusting bicycle or second-hand refrigerator gap?

posted by: deckko on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

> This guy has no hand to play.

Well, he could launch a suicidal attack against South Korea. I think he would lose, but ROK deaths would be in the hundreds of thousands even if no WMDs were used. That is a bit of a hand I think.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

But Nick Kristoff just told me that Bush's doing nothing about Korea has been an abysmal failure. I just don't what to believe.

posted by: rastajenk on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Kristoff and other critics of the administration have a point when they point out that Bush couldn't resolve internal administration disagreements over what to do about North Korea for the first two-plus years of his administration, so that policy drifted. That doesn't mean we aren't pursuing the right policy now, or that we shouldn't stick to it.

There are some big pieces of this puzzle still hidden from our view. The most important ones I see involve China, and the role of the North Korea issue in internal Chinese politics. Is Kim pushing an aggressive nuke stance now because he is getting encouragement from patrons in Beijing, because Beijing has shown signs of tiring of him and his endless confrontations, or for some other reason? I just don't know. I hope someone in Washington does, and hope that now more than ever American communications with the other regional governments are frequent and detailed.

posted by: Zathras on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

> > This guy has no hand to play.
> Well, he could launch a suicidal attack against South Korea. I think he would lose, but ROK deaths would be in the hundreds of thousands even if no WMDs were used. That is a bit of a hand I think.

It's not much of one. What does he gain by it? A lot of people die, one of whom ultimately would have to be him.

People talk about the US being tied down in Iraq, but the US has elements of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea, plus a full Marine EU and several other regiments of Marines in Japan. South Korea's own army is of course ready to defend its country. More important, the US has 100 or so aircraft stationed in Korea, with 350 more well within range in Japan, a couple dozen long-range bombers on Guam, plus the pacific fleet, which could bring a couple carrier battle groups into play in short order.

I don't think an invasion of the South would stand a snowball's chance, Iraq or no.

posted by: Marc on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

NK is horrible, but wouldn't a collapse be a different kind of horrible? I mean who can re-build that country? It's a country of emaciated, brainwashed dwarfs at this point that have had 50 years of bizarre propaganda shoved down their throats. (seriously) What country or countries are going to re-build that place and create a healthy civil society? It's as if Mao's revolution had lasted 50 years.

SK won't want to do it when a push comes to a shove and it looks to be much more difficult than rebuilding Japan, Germany, or even Iraq. That is a very, very damaged society. How would the rebuilding take place. I'm really asking.

posted by: matteo on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

Some important questions worth asking(?):

After decades of poverty, decay, likely corruption, and certain mismanagement, why should we believe that North Korea's industrial base is producing well-functioning conventional weapons (i.e. the much dreaded artillery that threatens to destroy northern SK)? Do they really have a credible threat here? Might their conventional forces lined along the border be mostly ill-equipped bluff?

And can they really feed, supply, equip, and repair these forces well enough to do significant damage to SK? How many of their big guns will actually function in a combat situation? etc...

posted by: jprime314 on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

> Do they really have a credible threat here?
> Might their conventional forces lined along the
> border be mostly ill-equipped bluff?

That is possible. Nice of the warbloggers commenting here to take the risk of having 500,000+ residents of Seoul assume the risk in finding out, while they are safe back in the US.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 02.11.05 at 10:50 AM [permalink]

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