Turning The Screws On North Korea

thai 2Last spring, North Korea belligerently tested missiles and conducted a second nuclear test. This was cited as an effort on the part of the North Koreans to “test” the new President. Since then, and without getting much attention the Administration’s approach to North Korea has quietly turned the screws on the Hermit Kingdom.

It was reported today that President Obama wrote a direct letter to Kim Jung Il (something that was also done by President Bush and Clinton). It was delivered last week by Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth when he visited Pyongyang. The timing of Obama’s letter and Bosworth’s visit was well planned, as the Hermit Kingdom is now increasingly anxious to come back to the table. While there has been no set timetable for talks to resume, the North Koreans have signaled that they are ready for them to restart.

The clamp down on North Korean arms trafficking is having an impact. The recent dramatic seizure in Thailand of a North Korean arms shipment required intense collaboration between intelligence agencies and was a byproduct of the UN sanctions that were pushed for by US Ambassador Susan Rice last May in response to North Korean missile and nuclear tests. It is “clear evidence of the sanctions increasing pressure on North Korea.” The Financial Times explained that “Kim Jong-il is feeling the noose of sanctions tighten” and that the world is becoming more adept at cracking down on his arms exports. It is estimated that illicit arms-trafficking brings in more than $1 billion per year and helps fund the North Korean military. The Thai seizure along with another one earlier this year will likely put a significant dent into that cash flow, explains Daniel Pinkston, north-east Asia Deputy Project Director at International Crisis Group.

This will impact on the revenue stream. … It is a sign of the increasing risk of doing business for the buyers, who are also violating UN Security Council resolution 1874.

Importantly, the loss of revenue, has made it more likely that North Korea will climb down and restart talks. Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses (KIDA) in Seoul noted that the there is a “greater likelihood that the North will look to dialogue with the United States and also the six-party talks as a way out. They are not going to be able to abandon dialogue.”

Along with upping the pressure through sanctions, the Administration has also worked to get allies on the same page. This was one of the major objectives of Obama’s trip to Asia, as former Ambassador Mort Abramowitz explained in the National Interest.

From the beginning of his administration and as a major part of his trip, Obama has worked toward ending the discord on North Korea policy with our major treaty partners—South Korea and Japan. They now sing from the same sheet on North Korea, and that seems apparent in Pyongyang’s recently less truculent behavior. The saga with the DPRK is hardly over, and Pyongyang is not likely to give up its nuclear-weapons capabilities anytime soon. But progress is more likely when our allies are not snarling at our actions as they did in the last years of the Bush administration.

These efforts, along with reports of rioting among North Korea’s fledgling middle class, have helped pressure North Korea to go back to the negotiating table.

But why restart talks in the first place if North Korea is balking under pressure? Pyongyang announced in September that it was in the final stages of enriching uranium and weaponizing plutonium and we already know that North Korea, for instance, helped Syria produce a nuclear facility on Israel’s door-step. Restarting negotiations is critical, not so much because there is any realistic chance of getting the North Koreans to give up the weapons that it built during the Bush administration – their nuclear program is after all their sole claim to relevance on the international stage – but because of the potential proliferation dangers of an unmonitored North Korea. So preventing further enrichment and nuclear development is a top priority.

However, the right continues to hold on to a failed approach that it is better to speak righteously and do nothing. In response to Bosworth’s trip to Pyongyang, Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard writes:

The very fact that the high-level face-to-face meetings took place is a blow to human rights in North Korea, as any such discussions necessarily lend legitimacy to the repressive regime in Pyongyang, particularly when such bilateral talks came after repeated demands for them from the North Koreans.

This approach, is the perfect example, of what Obama described in his Nobel speech, as the “satisfying purity of indignation.” And this is exactly the failed approach that allowed North Korea to get the bomb during the Bush administration in the first place.