Wednesday, April 03, 2013

North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

As the rhetoric ratchets up again on the Korean peninsula with talk of mobilization, attack, and counterattack, the time has come for the Obama administration to design a comprehensive plan for dealing with North Korea and its increasingly bellicose leader, Kim Jong-un.

Not so long ago a Korean crisis was a comparative rarity. These days, TV screens are filled with images of rockets and rhetoric describing potential “arcs of destruction”. Kim Jong-un is depicted surrounded by attentive military generals while he juggles phones and dusty computer equipment. Behind him is a map showing flight paths of missiles aimed at the United States. Hotlines have been cut, and the 1953 armistice has been discarded. Meanwhile, the United States flies in nuclear-capable bombers and fighter aircraft to South Korea, and the latter warns NK that provocation will be met with retaliation. None of these antics are necessarily new; however, the theater of it all has been more dramatic than usual.

Jong-un and ... Dennis Rodman?
Despite the absurdity (especially in the last two months) a substantive question remains: What can be done to break the cycle of sanctions and aggression between the United States and North Korea? Some predictable calls can be heard for the Obama administration to “engage” with the Kim regime. While logical sounding, the problem with pursuing such proposals is that they would merely convince Pyongyang that its “tried and true” strategy for winning favors still works. As previous U.S. administrations have learned the hard way, answering provocations with diplomacy will not lead to concessions by North Korea — only to another round of provocations.

What the Obama administration really needs is a new strategy for answering the provocations. Diplomacy hasn’t worked and neither has pressuring China to restrain the Kim regime. What has been effective are financial sanctions targeted at the ruling elite; the freezing of accounts in a Macau bank by the George W. Bush administration appeared to prompt paroxysms in Pyongyang. Although plenty of sanctions have been applied to North Korea, the U.S. Treasury could still do more to cut off relations between international banks and North Korea. Furthermore, the U.S. Treasury could ratchet up sanctions against North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank and target individuals who are known to be complicit in supporting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Furthermore, the United States and South Korea ought to answer North Korea’s bellicose declarations with a public relations campaign of their own, calling the world’s attention to the horrific gulag system that enslaves an estimated 150,000 North Koreans. Mr. Kim should get the message that provocations will yield not rewards but greater pressure on his assets and international censure.

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