Ambassador Wendy Sherman on North Korea Policy



By chance I received a subscription mailing from Ambassador Wendy Sherman through the Belfer Center, in which she describes a project she has conducted on the issue of forgiveness in international politics. But if forgiveness was the theme of her Harvard policy brief, her must-read speech from May 3 at the JoongAng Ilbo-CSIS Forum was anything but forgiving. If Sherman’s carefully crafted remarks are any indication of the direction of North Korea policy under a Clinton administration, our approach would take a decidedly more hawkish turn.  Nor is she alone; NKNews' Chad O'Carroll gets a similar downbeat read-out from long-time Asian hand Evans Revere. 

Sherman begins with a comparison to Iran along very similar lines to the those Marc Noland and I take in our forthcoming book Hard Target: Sanctions, Engagement and the Case of North Korea (Sherman headed the team that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Her basic point is that dictatorial regimes are not created equal. While Iran is clearly a religious autocracy, it is more open, ultimately less repressive, and with political processes—including the potential for a color revolution from below--that constrain the leadership. These factors moderate its propensity to pursue nuclear weapons. North Korea is not similarly constrained, and its commitment to nuclear weapons is more unwavering.

These differences dictate an alteranative approach. The pivotal paragraph of Sherman’s speech bears quoting in full:

“Given the greater commitment by North Korea’s leaders to the nuclear weapons program, the path forward will be different than Iran’s. Sanctions focus the mind and the choices in front of a country. But for sanctions to truly work in the case of North Korea, the impact needs to be severe, requiring comprehensive implementation over likely a longer period of time. This requires all of the five parties - South Korea, Japan, Russia China, the United States - but particularly China, to step up.”

Sherman underlines that military solutions are not feasible, but she clearly believes that sanctions can be ratcheted up if the United States is capable of effectively forging a coalition among South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Sherman is hopeful that UNSC 2270 signals a change of heart in Beijing, but for good measure she reminds the Chinese leadership that THAAD and perhaps even South Korean and Japanese nuclearization are possible outcomes of inattention to the issue (a threat that I find almost entirely incredible, given US lack of interest in seeing such a development). In case the signal is missed, Sherman returns to theme arguing that a an aspect of our coalition building efforts will be “a serious discussion of the kinds of necessary defensive measures that the US, ROK and Japan must and will undertake individually and collectively to respond to the rising threats from North Korea if a negotiated denuclearization appears to be out of reach.”

However, her central argument is that since China needs to be assured about the stability of the Korean peninsula, it is important that we begin a discussion about how we would deal with contingencies in the case of a North Korean collapse.  Sherman then reels off a series of quite important issues that would structure the agenda of such a conversation. All are substantively important, but they are decidedly not the sorts of questions that are likely to address Chinese concerns about “stability” on the peninsula.

And curiously absent in the whole discussion is North Korea. “Ratcheting up sanctions internationally, continuing military exercises, missile defense, focusing on human rights and developing a common understanding of what happens if there is a collapse”—Sherman’s list, not mine—are hardly the only signals we want to send if our objective is to drag North Korea back to negotiations. The speech refers to the Six Party Talks only in the past tense, makes no mention of the joint statement of September 2005 nor to any possible benefits that might accrue—even if prospective—from a negotiated settlement. This is not a subtle shift in policy; it is a pretty sharp turn away from strategic patience.

I don't see how this approach is likely to get the endorsement of the Chinese unless they are more fed up than they appear to be; we are all still waiting to see if Beijing’s commitment to UNSC 2270 is in fact real. But even if it is, there needs to be an exit ramp, as the Chinese have repeated to US officials ad nauseum. Maybe Sherman sees such details as part of the next phase of the game. But this is not the iron fist in one hand and the olive branch in the other; it is all iron fist, but without the capability to actually deliver the decisive blow. How do we expect North Korea to respond to that combination of incentives?

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