North Korea - Last Chance for Creative Thinking

Korea Chair Platform

North Korea is a curse for diplomacy and the peaceful settlement of conflicts. Every new North Korean nuclear test brings a strong sense of déja-vu:  escalatory speeches, an unprecedented series of missiles tests, and an international outcry. But nothing really serious happens as long as the threat North Korea poses to the United States is not deemed imminent.

However, doing nothing and watching is the least desirable option. “Strategic patience” has long proven to work in favor of an underestimated North Korea. The regime is smart. It has turned the international bargain on its nuclear program into a farce. It has achieved significant technological progress in spite of increased sanctions—saying either that its scientific routines are particularly efficient, or that it benefits from a fruitful cooperation with unknown foreign entities (remember the AQ Khan network). The regime is also resilient. It has stabilized the internal situation after the terrible starvation of the 1990s, ensured a dynastic succession, and undertaken genuine modernization efforts in spite of the sanctions. Last but not least, its leader is consistent. Kim Jong-Un has made the development of the nuclear program its main source of legitimacy, connecting his fate to what he sees as the greatness of his nation, well before economic progress. In sum, the regime has persuaded itself that it has plenty of time, for in the end, and barring a strategic surprise, the leader will ultimately reach his goal.

No one is really able to calculate how much time North Korea actually needs to build a credible nuclear deterrence. It is likely to be much less than a decade. In that sense North Korea is no Iran, as we are far from having a good understanding of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the doomsday clock. The absence of a consensual evaluation of the time North Korea needs to be able to mount a device on a warhead prevents the international community from placing this issue on top of the international agenda, instead allowing North Korea to dictate its own schedule. Yet North Korea crossing the nuclear Rubicon would be a disaster, either prompting a very risky U.S. military action or elevating the regional arms race up to another dimension.

Sanctions will not prevent, in the long run, North Korea from building up credible nuclear deterrence. The role of UN sanctions is to prevent North Korea from suddenly swinging into high gear. In fact, it is doubtful that North Korea ever actually reversed or froze its nuclear program under foreign pressure since the 1990s. The role of these sanctions is to buy as much time as possible and contain the level of threat North Korea poses by making its quest for nuclear deterrence more painful. It is nonsensical to say that lifting of sanctions for the sake of reestablishing dialogue would have a decisive impact on Kim’s state of mind.

The issue is not about re-establishing dialogue. The need is to reshape North Korea’s perception of its environment in a way that would make negotiations appear more attractive, before we actually run out of time and a platform to start them. Several methods of leverage exist or have been recently created and could be explored further.
First, while most observers argue that North Korea successfully exploits the distrust between China and the United States, they often overlook the fact that distrust between North Korea and China has grown at an even greater pace over the past few years, with North Korea constantly embarrassing its neighbour. It has taken time for China to endorse UN Security Council resolution 2270, yet the text was ambitious, marking a clear shift in China’s attitude toward its protégé. To be clear: leaving visible loopholes inside such a comprehensive resolution, knowing that there will be other provocations, means that China unconditionally endorsed all other paragraphs and accepted accountability for these loopholes, all subject to challenge. Yet South Korea, disgruntled by China’s apparent powerlessness, seems to be preparing more for an open conflict rather than for a reprisal of dialogue. The emotion-driven decision to accept THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployment is a gambit that could dash optimism for cooperation with China. It clearly comes at the expense of a regional consensus to solve the crisis - and China is needed on board.
Second, multinational efforts aimed, through diplomatic channels, at sapping North Korea’s illicit trade networks have slowly started to bear fruits. These efforts are not aimed at thwarting direct proliferation flows, which is done through coercion. Rather, their primary purpose is to curb North Korean sources of income abroad, for North Korea is far from being diplomatically isolated. North Korea has inherited strong diplomatic and personal ties from the Cold War era, some of which have subsisted, especially in Africa. A courageous decision by Botswana to cut off diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2014 as well as recent moves in Burma and Uganda nonetheless demonstrate that these links can be worn out by international pressure. Still, although the North Korean network of influence is disrupted, it keeps trying to expand its roots into other counties—for example, by using overseas workers in Russia, China, the Middle-East and even Europe, a source of revenue roughly estimated between $200 million and $2 billion.
Third, it is now clear that undermining the regime’s international credibility could have a significant impact on its posture. Kim Jong-Un craves recognition as much as he does nuclear weapons—and this will be more exacervated as news from the outer world floods into the country. In that sense, the military threat it poses inadvertently serves the regime’s propaganda, but not quite as much as the wishes of success repeatedly addressed by countries—not only North Korea’s allies—to Kim Jong-Un. All of these are signs of respect that allow the regime to bolster its internal legitimacy. On the other hand, while Kim Jong-Un likes being depicted as a regional outsider and a gambler, he seems galled by any sign of disdain—sometimes announcing missile tests in advance as a response to accusations of the violation of International Civil Organization Aviation (IOCA) rules, or deploying considerable efforts to undermine a UN report that depicts him as a criminal. Worth noting, the decision by France not to engage in diplomatic relations with North Korea didn’t affect North Korea’s will to engage—in fact, the opposite happened.
Besides these leverage options, the existing sanction regime has yet to reach its full effectiveness.

Sanctions are part of a bigger policy meant to disrupt illicit economic sectors and cut off their financing channels. Blocking all channels might therefore not always be the best option, and one might prefer procuring items aimed at disrupting existing installations (remember Stuxnet). The brutal interruption of trade of resources that can be supplied internally can actually contribute to improving the resilience of an economy to external shocks—and North Korea’s local uranium sector is flourishing in spite of sanctions.  Encouraging the creation of dysfunctional procurement networks or artificially creating conditions for economic dependence could prove as efficient; China might have this in mind when it allows its coal imports from North Korea to soar in spite of sanctions.

The sanctions regime must also comprehensively target activities connected to these programs rather than trade only. Those in Europe, who argue that the fight against proliferation can be genuinely separated from political dialogue with North Korea miss a point. North Korea is not Russia. The nature of the regime is such that all its citizens abroad are also its envoys—unless, or until, they defect—and therefore subject to close monitoring. North Korea’s diplomatic offices, restaurants, companies or associations abroad primarily serve as a hub for attracting benefits, which means its diplomats have to raise cash, resorting to all possible means – gold, drug or cigarettes trafficking.  These elements are often overlooked whenever a decision is taken to open an embassy – or to allow more personnel in.

For the sanctions regime to remain effective, sanctions should be surprising and innovative. The reactive case-by-case approach has in part failed, because slow procedures allow replacement of entities and individuals before they are actually designated. It is therefore of crucial importance that member States act first on their own behalf whenever possible, acting as a suggestion box, rather than a receptacle, for UN resolutions. Sanctions mechanisms should also be flexible and semi-automatic, to prevent quick adaptation by North Korea. In the European Union the “status based criterion” tool, which allows the targeting of individuals on the basis of rank, offers such flexibility; however, although the tool has been used for Syria, it has not been applied to North Korea so far. For the regime, adapting to such legislation would involve reforming the oversight of its nuclear program, therefore giving in to pressure. Last but not least, public and private research on North Korea’s scientific and political apparatus is currently too fragmented to effectively support national designations. Improved information-sharing procedures between the like-minded and with the 1718 committee would help propose a better coordinated response from the international community-- and strengthen the robustness of sanctions in case of a lawsuit.

Awareness-building would be more effective if its promoters had strong incentives to prompt potential clients to resist North Korea’s siren call. Many countries in Africa started doing business with North Korea on the basis of shared ideological and military objectives, yet this assumption is less valid today. Trade persists or expands mostly on the basis of interest, because it is convenient or relies on old contracts (Uganda), because no credible alternative option is on the table or simply because those countries think they are too “small” to draw attention. Most of them could change their mind if they saw potential benefit in doing so, just as Myanmar did. The United States as well as the European Union (especially under the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace) have cooperation tools aimed at strengthening the legislation on counter-proliferation in partner States. Yet it is probably South Korea, not the usual preachers in the region (U.S. and the most involved Europeans, among them France), that holds the biggest part of the deal in its hands; if you don’t want North Korea to carry clout, you’d better be prepared to fill the vacuum, and the Ugandan case could well have set a precedent.
Alongside positive incentives, cracking down on third parties that knowingly violate the sanctions regime could prove useful. The designation of entities and individuals associated with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs or with activities directly or indirectly contributing to them is already possible under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. The effectiveness of a naming-and-shaming policy can be questioned if it were to be broadly applied to Chinese companies, thereby prompting a strong Chinese reaction. However, other partners of North Korea do not have the same ability to retaliate, nor do they have an interest in cooperating with North Korea such that they would stand up to the international community. The 1718 Panel of Expert Reports are full of entity names—most notably those cooperating with Korea Mining and Development Corporation (KOMID) and there are likely more representatives worldwide. Publicly seeking to make an example of one of these entities at the United Nations would send a quite harmless yet firm warning to everybody - including China.

Finally, it is time to question the effectiveness of the Six Party Talks framework as it exists—mainly because it only involves “partners” whose national interests are increasingly at odds and countries that are confronting each other as much as they are confronting North Korea.  The United States is unlikely to be able to sort things out with North Korea in yet another poisonous face-to-face. The management of the North Korean crisis is way too embedded in U.S. political contingencies, and a deal would take time and solid guarantees to flourish. In such a context, it could prove useful for the protagonists to appeal to external views not only to endorse and finance a deal, but also to mediate or at least creatively reflect on the most contentious point—a comprehensive peace agreement, which North Korea itself has demanded in the past few years. An arbitration proposal would respect the equal footing prerequisite. Even if not successful, it could also help breaking the reciprocal “homeland security only” approach, which by nature leaves no room for dialogue. Though the uncertain future of such negotiations might leave little room for optimism, other plans on the table disturbingly resemble a “game-over” option.
Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at CSIS and a former French diplomat. Prior to joining CSIS, he served at the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament office of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was responsible for nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense as a member of the Warsaw Summit negotiating team.
Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Toucas