20 Theses on North Korea



The nuclear test and satellite launch have sparked another round of soul-searching on what to do about North Korea. The following 20 theses are offered as an overall assessment of the current state of play, aimed in part at the supposition--repeatedly proven wrong--that outside actors have decisive influence over North Korean behavior one way or the other. That the North Korean problem can be "solved" carries a very low probability, and may be little more than wishful thinking. We are therefore in a world where the central task is to mitigate risk, while remaining open to a return to negotiations if a serious opportunity arises.

  1. The only way to denuclearize North Korea is through negotiations, most likely the Six Party Talks (6PT).
  2. North Korea will not unilaterally disarm, so if denuclearization is the goal, then any policy has to be measured by whether it will return us to the 6PT.
  3. The US should continually reiterate its willingness to return to the 6PT on the basis of the September 19 2005 Joint Statement.
  4. The fact that North Korea will only denuclearize through a 6PT-like process does not speak to the issue of whether they have any interest in doing so; it is simply outlining the only (low-probability) path out of the current stalemate.
  5. It is more likely that we are in a world in which North Korea is a de facto nuclear power and likely to remain so for some time.
  6. The closing of Kaesong will have substantial material effects, including not only in foreign exchange earnings for the regime but in the need to reabsorb 50,000 displaced Kaesong workers.
  7. The closing of Kaesong will not lead North Korea back to the Six Party Talks nor to North-South talks, but is the start of another sequence of provocations, probably missile and possibly nuclear tests but also other asymmetric actions.
  8. Secondary sanctions may or may not impose material costs on North Korea. North Korea has already adapted to substantial limits on its ability to undertake financial transactions (look at SWIFT data). The sanctions will depend on what financial intelligence Treasury has on companies trading with North Korea and on banks holding regime and family assets and whether any of those entities are actually vulnerable to closing off access to the US financial and clearing system. Put differently, do not assume a "Banco Delta Asia effect" in which sanctions ultimately led back to negotiations (albeit only following North Korea's 2006 breakout, it should be noted).
  9. As a result, secondary sanctions are also not likely to lead North Korea back to the Six Party Talks.
  10. The closure of Kaesong and secondary sanctions are of primary use in raising the costs to North Korea of pursuing its current course, limiting its access to resources and dual-use technologies and signaling Korean and US seriousness-of-intent with respect to China.
  11. China will probably agree to some limited additional sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, but they will be minimal and will not have either substantial substantive effect nor are they likely to return North Korea to the Six Party Talks.
  12. It is not impossible that China could pivot against North Korea, and if it did the five parties should also return quickly to the 6PT process. But I attach a low probability to this outcome.
  13. The US and the ROK are highly unlikely to prioritize this issue over the myriad of other issues they need to consider in dealing with Beijing. As a result, they have relatively little leverage vis-a-vis China beyond what they can naturally achieve by assuring the stability of the deterrent.
  14. Sanctions have perverse internal political effects in North Korea; they strengthen the military, lead to greater repression and may even increase support for Kim Jong Un given the regime's capacity to control the narrative.
  15. Sanctions are not likely to have much material effect on the marketization process, but will only increase the rents made from such activity. In fact, sanctions could accelerate marketization.
  16. North Korea is still undergoing a political succession process—note the recent purges—and we will not know which direction Kim Jong Un ultimately wants to take the country until the Party Congress this summer. But to date, there is little evidence that he will abandon the byungjin line of simultaneous pursuit of economic development and maintenance of the nuclear and missile programs. In the low-probability event that he declares victory and opts for a different course, the five parties should return to the Six Party Talks.
  17. The prospects of “collapse”—whatever that means—are not zero, but very low in the absence of China turning against the Kim regime.
  18. Sanctions—multilateral, bilateral, secondary—are not likely to increase the probability of collapse, again, whatever that means.
  19. If North Korea were to undergo a political transition of some sort, it is more likely to be from a familial-personalist regime to a party-military hybrid that will exhibit largely the same behavior as the current one.
  20. Regime change in any case is not a policy; it is a wish.

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