20 Theses on North Korea

February 16, 2016 7:00 AM

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.


Jay Dixon

Could you add some additional theses on the following topics? 1) Sanctions make North Korea more dependent on China, and this is a dependency they've shown interest in avoiding. Is there mileage to be had in increasing their China dependence and then offering a way to reduce it?
2) With regards to secondary sanctions, marketization and rents: to what degree do the emergence of markets and power that access to rents grant weaken the grip of the regime and mitigate their ability to increase repression?
3) To what extent is the weakening of the regime a good thing, and to what extent does it constitute state failure (where the space it vacates is occupied by organized crime)?


The prospects of collapse I would say are around 10% a year. The DailyNK has a story that Kim Jong Un is making senior-level cadres report in hourly to try and stop a coup or assassination. On the paranoia scale of 1-10 it sounds like Jong un is at an 11, while that may be good for speakers I don't think it is healthy for a ruler. I believe the North Korean system needs a Kim at its head to survive, and without one you will have factional infighting leading to collapse. Regime change is not a policy, but how about dropping 250,000 small radios on North Korea each year until collapse. The North Korean people learning the truth is what the Kim's fear the most. And I state again the 365 billion balance of trade surplus that China has over the US is a good place to apply pressure on China to force them to apply pressure on North Korea.


B.R. Myers is always provocative and interesting to read:
https://www.nknews.org/2016/02/taking-north-korea-at-its-word/. The bottom line: take seriously what the North Koreans actually say rather than imputing motives that align with our priors. SH

Liars N. Fools

My comment to Myers' article: William Perry, when he conducted the review of North Korea policy for the Clinton administration, said wisely that we have to take North Korea as it was and not what we hoped it was. Fast forward fifteen years to the present, and we still pursue a North Korea policy based on our preconceptions about what we hope North Korea (and China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia) will do rather than confront the realities of what these countries are likely to do in their national interests. The North Korean regime is dastardly and evil, but making them cartoon villains does little to inform us on how to deal with them. Minimally we should hear what they are saying and analyzing how their actions and stated motives coincide or differ.

Liars N. Fools

The "contract" of Six Party Talks in that China will use its good offices to sponsor the negotiations, that the objective is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (which the Chinese also mean to include us), and that the modality must also include a U.S. prepared to negotiate with the DPRK. The Chinese are not our proxies, and their unhappiness with us trying to put this policy failure on them is understandable. We need to talk to the DPRK, with as much coordination with the ROK as we please. Right now, the DPRK is in a good place. They have driven a wedge between the PRC and the ROK, and they have exacerbated an already difficult U.S.-PRC relationship, exacerbated by all those Americans who want to subcontract the responsibility and the blame for the policy failure onto the PRC.


Curious about waht work or intution leads you to think #19 Steph. What evidene we have suggests that collapses of personalist regimes tend to be violent. Any reason to think that military-party rule will emerge at the end of it?


JB: The point about transitions just comes from empirical work on patterns of transition from party-dominant systems in the postwar period. Using transition matrices tracking all transitions between different regime types (democracy, party-dominant authoritarian, multi-party authoritarion, military authoritarian, monarchy, etc.) Magaloni and Kricheli find that the dominant path of transition for party-dominant systems is not toward democracy but toward other types of authoritarian rule. I did not comment on whether such a transition would be violent or not; some such authoritarian-to-authoritarian transitions take place through palace coups with minimal violence. SH


Wasn't aware of their work. Thanks!


The B.R. Myers piece is interesting but I disagree with his conclusion which he never fully states, which is that North Korea seeks to take over the South. So the reason the North wants nuclear weapons and ICBM's is to force the US to abandon the South. The North may state that it wants final victory and maybe Kim tells his General this to keep them happy. But really what are the odds of a Northern victory, most of their equipment is decades old and may not even work. Also they lack the means to resupply their troops if they could move twenty miles into South Korea. They are completely outclassed in tanks and jets, two hours into the war the South would have sweep the skies of the Northern planes. You can not win a modern war when the other side controls the sky. I would think I have a better chance of beating LeBron James in a game of one on one then the North would have of defeating the South. I do believe Myers is right about anti-American left in the South. The 10 billion in aid they gave the North probably saved it from collapse. The left controls the education system in the South and they have done tremendous damage to the South, several years ago in a poll only 15% of South Koreans said they would fight for their country. But with the death of the Sunshine policy things are getting better. If it was up to me I would round up the 1000 worst leftists and force them into North Korea, where they would learn what complete idiots they have been their entire lives.

Steven Denney

Simple but important question: Isn't North Korea a personalist-party hybrid regime, not simply a personalist one?

Michael Bassett

This is one of the most accurate list of theses out there, in my opinion. Seems that people in this field live in a fantasy world where their vision is clouded by the way they want things to work, not the way things actually work. Thank you for this clear-eyed piece of rationality!

Michael Bassett

RE: BR Myers - I agree that his work is interesting and very well researched, but I think he sees NK through too much of a Japanese lense. I don't think NK is a fascist regime - at the international level of analysis they are an Anarchic regime. Big difference of you want to understand how to deal with them in international relations. Boxing an anarchist into a corner makes them rebel even more, whereas teaching them new ways of relating can coax them out of their shell and teach them to trust and join international norms...

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