Debating History--and Bolton--with Josh Stanton



We received a very thoughtful rejoinder to our entry on John Bolton from Josh Stanton and thought it deserved greater attention. Stanton’s One Free Korea blog is a rich source of information and he has been a thoughtful critic of our work. He has also been a tireless advocate of a tougher policy on North Korea and a defender of the Bolton legacy.

Given that North Korea policy is often used as a litmus test of Democratic nerve during presidential campaigns, the issues could actually get some airplay and are thus worth debating. Warning: we do so here at more length than many readers may think necessary, going all the way back to the Agreed Framework and quarreling over a historical detail. Caveat emptor.

Before starting, though, Stanton objected to our use of the term “neocon” and posed the following question: “I hope that at some point, Haggard will offer a coherent definition of the term "neocon" in the foreign policy context. In its modern usage, the term has become an epithet in search of a definition more precise than ‘anyone to the right of Jimmy Carter.’”

Happy to oblige. The neoconservative strand of American foreign policy emerged in the mid-1970s as a critique of Kissingerian realism; the best account is James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans, one of the best books on American foreign policy written in the last decade. Put as neutrally as possible, there are three core strands to neo-conservative foreign policy:

  • A rejection of balance-of-power politics, “containment” and even traditional deterrence in favor of achieving “primacy” or “dominance” through increased allocation of resources to the military. This was true both at the global level and within particular regional theatres.
  • Skepticism about multilateralism and a desire for the US to exercise more discretion with respect to multilateral commitments, even if it means effectively abrogating them (for example, in the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty);
  • A rejection of the realist assumption that diplomacy should take states’ internal politics as a given. Rather efforts at regime change should be considered where it is possible and cost-effective to do so.

Of course, any such categorization is never hard-and-fast.  Some of these ideas have been shared at various times and places with Democrats and more traditional realists in the Kissinger-Scowcroft-Rice tradition. And at other times, neocons have acted in more standard realist ways, and even embraced multilateralism. But at the margin, these seem to be core ideas that neo-cons share, and Stanton is no exception.

Stanton, citing our post at the outset:

"The problem is that this approach is often little more than posturing. It not only fails to accomplish its objectives but is completely counterproductive."

How would you defend the Agreed Frameworks of both Clinton and Bush II from the same charge? Those policies, along with their more extreme South Korean variant, certainly were warmly embraced by the diplomats and the editorial commentariat they were posturing for.  Their effect was to allow North Korea to get the bomb, help finance a steady increase in its nuclear and missile capabilities, and turn a blind eye to a steady flow of North Korean technology and materials proliferated to Iran and Syria.  This is to say nothing of the millions of North Koreans who suffered and died needlessly while foreign money sustained this otherwise insolvent regime.


The debate involves counterfactual analysis; that’s why it frequently goes in circles. But we have little choice in seeking to understand history, so here are the central questions as I see them:

  • The Agreed Framework (AF) did not stop the North Koreans from pursuing missile capabilities because the AF did not cover missiles; it cannot be faulted for this failure. An effort to negotiate a missile agreement was in train during the last year of the Clinton presidency but did not succeed. This effort was not picked up by the Bush administration. Whether it should have been, or whether an agreement could have been struck, is an open question. It would have taken a commitment to negotiation on both sides, and even then might well have failed. But it is a fact that there was no interest in such negotiations on the US side; Bolton is completely clear on this point and Colin Powell learned the lesson the hard way.
  • No plutonium was extracted from spent fuel rods during the period when the AF was in force (prior to its effective termination under the Bush administration in December 2002). Plutonium was extracted from spent fuel rods once the Agreed Framework was terminated. Plutonium constituted the fissile material that went into the two nuclear devices tested in 2006 and 2009. Bolton appears to believe—from his memoir—that the North Koreans “wanted” to extract plutonium anyway and that the effective cancellation of the Agreed Framework therefore had no effect whatsoever on North Korean nuclear capabilities. If it did have such effect, it was only with respect to the timing of their pursuit of the plutonium option.  Given that there is no evidence that North Korea had pursued the plutonium option during the AF period, I find this argument highly dubious.
  • In Stanton’s and Bolton’s favor it is important to note that the Agreed Framework only “froze” Yongbyon; dismantlement was put off until after the LWRs had effectively gone critical. The North Korean commitment to the AF was therefore easily reversible. This was a failing of the AF that the 2007 agreements (of February and October) sought to correct. However, those agreements were not implemented by the North Koreans. The reasons they were not implemented are multiple, and include the following: North Korean failure to provide credible guarantees on proliferation and HEU; North Korean failure to offer a credible statement of all of their capabilities; US introduction of the verification issue in response to these failings; and ultimately the stroke suffered by Kim Jong Il in August 2008. Whether the 2007-8 agreements could have been implemented successfully or not is another open historical question.
  • The AF did not prevent North Korea from pursuing an HEU option. This is no longer open to serious doubt, and seems to me the main source of the claim by Stanton (and Bolton) that the AF was a failure.  The disagreements now center not on whether the North Koreans had pursued an HEU option nor whether it was a violation of the AF but the following:
    • How far along was this option?
    • This option was not in fact “either-or” but could at any time be pursued more or less aggressively. Was the pursuit of this option itself affected by the Bush administration posture?
    • Even if you think that it was not affected by the Bush administration’s bellicose foreign policy, what are you going to do about it? There seems to be an assumption in Bolton’s writings that if the US only hung tough, the North Koreans would simply capitulate. But there is no evidence for this assumption; to the contrary, external pressure strengthens the military internally and generates more provocative behavior not less. I come back to this below.
  • A common concern of critics of the AF and engagement more generally is that such policies “finance” proliferation and the continuity of the regime itself. In one sense this is right; resources are ultimately fungible and particularly in a state socialist economy, pouring money into one funnel (food) frees up resources to do something else (proliferate, pay off your core supporters). But Stanton and critics of engagement have to justify the human costs of not providing humanitarian support. The “funding” of the regime during the AF period took two forms: shipments of heavy fuel oil; and shipments of food and fertilizer. The latter obviously served the purpose of relieving human suffering. This is the fundamental dilemma of dealing with a country like North Korea. Bolton to my knowledge does not address the humanitarian issues except to underline the regime’s barbarity. But that’s easy to do; the question is whether you support humanitarian assistance or not.


I don't read your post as an argument that Bolton sees no role for diplomacy in denuclearizing North Korea. After all, you concede that he was the architect of two (potentially) effective U.N. resolutions.  His understandable contempt for the broader institution doesn't seem to have prevented him from being more effective there than, say, Susan Rice, at persuading the U.N. to take effective action after a North Korean nuclear test.  Faced with the same facts, Rice's product, UNSCR 1874, did little more than incorporate Bolton's UNSCR 1718, with some modest enhancements tucked in on the arms trade.

I've argued that conservatives should be fair enough to recognize that President Obama's not-bad North Korea policy rests on foundations laid by John Bolton.  In the same spirit, liberals should be fair enough to acknowledge the debt they owe to Bolton's tough-minded diplomacy.  Obama has enforced the Proliferation Security Initiative more effectively than Bush ever did.  Bolton was the diplomatic force behind creating that initiative.


Bolton does have a clear conception of how to use diplomacy with North Korea, but unfortunately it does not involve negotiating with North Korea and he says as much. The assumption is that if outside pressure can be adequately orchestrated, North Korea will either concede outright or come back to a bargaining table.

Incidentally, these ideas were not introduced by the neo-cons behind George Bush’s back, as some seem to believe; as he shows in his memoir, President Bush was the font of these ideas.

But if the bargaining table is set with unilateral demands, the North Koreans do not come back. The Six Party Talks achieved precisely nothing during the first Bush administration because they were completely preoccupied with American demands (remember CVID?).

Any strategy of putting pressure on the North Koreans must be combined with a negotiating framework that provides some positive inducements to address their concerns. Its fine to say that you will not concede to blackmail, but this is posturing; of course you make concessions. Diplomacy should be about a strictly calculated cost-benefit calculus: are we better off with a flawed AF than we are with a nuclear North Korea?

With respect to the utility of sanctions, I understand them somewhat differently than Stanton and Bolton. They may or may not have strategic value in bringing the North Koreans back to the bargaining tabl Bet they do have defensive value in making it harder for the North Koreans to proliferate and I support them for that reason. With respect to the parentage of the sanctions policy, if Stanton wants to claim it for Bolton, that’s fine. But Democrats are no less able to take a tough stance than Republicans and Bolton’s continual suggestions to the contrary are simply false.


The problem with our North Korea diplomacy is that we haven't presented North Korea (and, critically, China) with a plausible adverse consequence of its well established pattern of bad faith dealing.  We haven't set firm benchmarks and showed them what a Plan B looks like if the benchmarks aren't met.  Bolton is right when he argues that we should design our diplomacy to deal with that pattern, and that diplomacy alone may not be enough to achieve our essential security objectives.  Consider that our negotiations with North Korea were never more effective than when we were clamping down on Banco Delta Asia, but when those sanctions were relaxed, North Korea predictably reneged (again)

And if North Korea continues to raise the stakes with attacks on South Korea, how do we maintain some degree of effective deterrence without escalating to direct military action?  The commentariat, for the most part, has no answer to this except for vague threats that they don't really mean, and which the North Koreans know they don't mean.  They same old agreed framework formula has not only failed to make the situation less dangerous, its weakness has made it vastly more so.


The reason we have not presented North Korea with a plausible set of adverse consequences is because a number of the actions that Bolton would like to advance are simply not credible. Moreover, everyone—including the North Koreans and Chinese—knows it. The credibility of US policy was undermined not by Clinton and Obama, but ironically by Bush. The administration continually suggested redlines that were crossed because it did not actually have credible options. In sum, it was the Bush administration that offered up “vague threats that they didn’t really mean.”

Bolton would have us believe that the reason for this pattern was the recalcitrance of holdovers: the stuffed shirts at State. This kind of “stabbed in the back” logic is a common historical trope to excuse bad policy; “if only we had had our way!” But the main strategic effect of the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea was basically to cement Pyonyang’s relationship with Beijing. To think that the US is going to press Beijing to the wall over North Korea—ultimately a strategic sideshow—is to sorely overestimate US leverage on the peninsula.

Banco Delta Asia is often cited as an example of how financial sanctions can be used to bring pressure to bear. I have no problem with financial sanctions; they are a useful tool. But the history does not tell the happy story that Stanton would like us to believe. The ratcheting up of financial sanctions through BDA—and the signals sent specifically by Bolton and Vice President Cheney that the US was not really committed to the terms of the September 2005 Joint Statement--led directly to the 2006 nuclear test. How is that a victory?

I am much less worried about the stability of deterrence on the peninsula than Stanton appears to be. The Cheonan and Yongpyong-do shelling were deterrence failures, to be sure. But if I were sitting in Pyongyang, I would not be feeling lucky next time out. To close with the words of Harry Callahan, “go ahead, make my day.”

I invited Josh to have the last word, He was kind enough to oblige at length by outlining his preferred strategy for dealing with North Korea.


I wonder when a critical mass of our foreign policy establishment will finally come to terms with the collapse of both pillars of our North Korea policy -- conventional military deterrence and negotiated disarmament. Deterrence collapsed when North Korea got away with sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean village along its most vital sea lane, and the only question about negotiated disarmament is which agreed framework killed it. Here we are, still arguing about Agreed Framework I four years after North Korea reneged on Agreed Framework II, the brainchild of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Christopher Hill. Remember when Hill ridiculed the idea of "a building somewhere with a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium?” Diplomacy must be a very lonely business, especially for a man who spent most of 2007 and 2008 negotiating with himself in a hotel in Beijing. But even before the North Koreans blindfolded Sig Hecker, dressed him in a red paisley smoking jacket, and ushered him into that room, the Obama Administration saw ample evidence that North Korea had an undisclosed HEU program. So if it's Bush's fault that hawks in his administration, like Bolton, killed Agreed Framework I with accusations about HEU, isn't it also Barack Obama's fault that hawks in his administration, like Hillary Clinton and Gary Samore, killed Bush's Agreed Framework II with allegations about the very same program? You can argue with John Bolton about other issues, but he was dead right about the HEU, as were plenty of other people who held top secret clearances at the time. (By the way, I'll buy a soy half-caf latte for the first person who spots Selig Harrison's retraction.)

I can't claim to know Ambassador Bolton well, but I once discussed North Korea with him in his office at the U.N, and I don't think I misrepresent him when I infer that North Korea's history motivates his skepticism about its trustworthiness. (An aspect of Bolton's personality that his critics miss, and which his writing doesn't convey, is his wonderfully dry sense of humor.) By 2002, there was already a strong historical basis for that skepticism. What international agreement has North Korea ever made that it hasn't violated? I feel qualified to defend Bolton because we share the view that without a fundamental change in how North Korea views diplomacy, it can't be trusted to abide by its commitments. The real question is whether this fundamental change of view also requires a fundamental change in the composition of the regime itself. Agreed Framework I was no exception to North Korea's pattern of mendacity. Bolton's critics tend to gloss over the fact that it was Kim Jong Il, not George W. Bush, who walked away from Agreed Framework I by restarting the Yongbyon reactor in December of 2002, and by withdrawing from the NPT shortly thereafter. North Korea's excuse for this was our suspension of deliveries of fuel oil after it admitted to two diplomats and their translators that it really did have a clandestine HEU program, in flagrant violation of the agreement. Whether the final rupture was North Korea's design or Bolton's (or both) is partially unknowable and wholly irrelevant. North Korea wasn't keeping its word, with or without American aid. Should President Bush have gone on providing aid anyway? This would have been more than bad policy; it would have been illegal. Congress would not have appropriated funds for the aid in these circumstances, and any unauthorized expenditure of funds would have violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which carries criminal penalties.

It's remarkable to me how persistently some still insist that President Bush should have kept right on shipping aid anyway, despite the serious proliferation threat HEU poses and the relative ease of concealing an HEU program. The debate about the very existence of the HEU program continued years after the publicly available evidence of its existence became overwhelming. Rather than rehash it here, I will refer you to this, and if that's still not tedious or depressing enough for you, you can also read this chronology. This history is so tedious and so depressing because no matter how much you flog it, it does nothing to demilitarize the line between two warring tribes of the F.P.E. -- those who concluded long ago that North Korea can't be trusted, and those who seem (to the former group) congenitally incapable of accepting that it can't be. In fact, it all seems so irrelevant to me that I never even bothered to read Bolton's book.

Some of the decisions Bush made later are much more difficult to defend. After all, Robert Gallucci knew a lot less in 1994 than Chris Hill, Condi Rice, and George W. Bush knew by 2007. That's why I can't explain, much less defend, Agreed Framework II. In this fiasco of ironies, Bush effectively nullified UNSCR 1718 just six months after Bolton pushed it through the Security Council, used the Federal Reserve to launder proceeds of its counterfeiting, and let it get away with nuclear proliferation and (roll eyes here) mass murder. When Bush demanded a gesture of verification, the North Koreans gave Chris Hill and Sung Kim samples and documents (page 12) that were smeared with HEU. Verification, indeed!

Now consider all that has happened since 2007 -- the collapse of a second agreed framework, the door and the scantily clad women, al-Kibar, more nuke and missile tests, the Cheonan, Yeonpyeong Island, the Bangkok missile seizure, assassination attempts on Hwang Jang Yop and others, and even another possible case of nuclear proliferation -- and ask yourself who in the F.P.E. would have thought any of those events were even thinkable beforehand (aside from the first one, which I predicted with eerie clairvoyance). Of course, some still cling to the old paradigms, but aside from seeing no better options themselves, they hardly seem to believe their own arguments anymore. I like Mike Chinoy well enough personally, but sometimes he reminds me of the dog who waits on the porch weeks after his master has moved away. We're already realizing the dangers of this Procrustean group-think, this collective failure of imagination, and what has failed before will fail even more catastrophically tomorrow. Diplomacy will be an important part of defanging North Korea, but talking with North Korea shouldn't be the beginning of the diplomatic process, it should be the final phase, after we've secured enough leverage to enforce compliance. Doing this in the wrong sequence has accomplished nothing for the United States, but it won Kim Jong Il the time, the legal and diplomatic cover, and perhaps some of the money he used to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

Rather than continuing with what has failed since 1993, I advocate a policy of contain, constrict, and collapse. This policy isn't mutually exclusive with diplomacy; if it buys us the leverage to get to C.V.I.D. and a North Korea that doesn't menace its neighbors and its own people, great. Unlike past diplomatic approaches, however, it would not allow for the relaxation of pressure as a precondition for talks, and would incrementally increase financial and subversive pressure on the regime for breaking its commitments and failing to meet reasonable deadlines.

1. Contain

Professor Haggard's mention of missiles in the context of Agreed Framework I reminds us that North Korea poses plenty of other threats aside from nukes. Had Agreed Framework I or II succeeded, we might have progressed to dealing with its missiles, long-range artillery, chemical and biological weapons, and its tendency to proliferate them. Unfortunately, we never got that far, so we're dealing with those threats through the Proliferation Security Initiative, diplomacy with third countries, asset freezes, sanctions, and occasional interdictions at airports and seaports. The legal authority for most of our counter-proliferation efforts comes from a trio of U.N. Security Council resolutions -- 1695 and 1718, for which we have John Bolton to thank, and UNSCR 1874, whose operative provisions mostly cross-reference 1718. It may delight me a little too much to say this, but no diplomat has has done more to slow North Korean proliferation than John Bolton, and the only institutions with a comparable record are the U.S. Navy and the Israeli Air Force. Countervailing this, agreed frameworks and aid have done much to sustain a regime that prioritizes weapons over everything else, and undermined the financial leverage that sanctions are meant to gain. That aid has been substantial: millions of tons of food aid, much of it probably diverted to the military and the political elite; a million tons of fuel oil in 2007; and billions of dollars in unrestricted cash aid from the South Korean government, a government that U.S. taxpayers spend billions of their own dollars to defend each year. There may be such a thing as coherent diplomacy that alternates financial constriction (as punishment) with financial subsidies (as a reward), but not one that offers both simultaneously. This isn't a policy; it's a diagnosis.

In 2010, the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, for all the excellence with which it is marketed in this city, stood paralyzed when North Korea launched a limited war along South Korea's most vital sea lane. What does that alliance still deter? Probably a full-scale invasion or a nuclear strike, but little else. It is obviously urgent to our South Korean allies that we restore enough deterrence to protect its people, but most Americans would not say that's worth involving ourselves in a ground war in Korea. Some of the Americans who would agree most strongly are the soldiers who serve, or served, in South Korea. Maybe a geopolitical debate is no place to say that many South Koreans seemed ungrateful for what we contributed to their security and prosperity, but one of the reasons America was paralyzed when North Korea attacked was the presence of our soldiers within North Korean artillery range. If keeping ground forces in Korea deters us more than it deters the North Koreans, why not shift to using naval and air power to deter a large-scale North Korean attack, and toward interdicting North Korean proliferation? I've long suspected that the answer lies in the excellence of South Korea's marketing within the F.P.E.

Professor Haggard disagrees and believes that the U.S.-South Korean alliance still presents a credible deterrent. When he says, "Make my day," he sets up the oddest role reversal in this discussion, in which the arch-hawk counsels the genteel, dovish professor about the hazards of empty threats, and the greater hazards of military escalation. Neither would deter much of anything. In fact, a limited war might be the best political gift we could give Jang Song Thaek and his porcine puppet as they try to build an aura of martial audacity. I'd be surprised if Jang didn't have election-year plans to gain concessions from both South Korea and the United States, whose leaders are desperate to avoid a nuclear test this year.  For what it's worth, I predict that the recent announcement of talks between Glyn Davies and the North Koreans is all about managing North Korea out of the headlines until November. The Administration won't let Agreed Framework III see the light of day before then. Nor does it want to confront North Korea while it's trying to stop Iran from achieving its own nuclear breakout. Unfortunately for President Obama, North Korea knows how not to be ignored. The GNP's reincarnation, the Saenuri Party, on the other hand, wants to look conciliatory by reprising a political strategy so familiar to South Korean voters that they call it the Northern Wind play.  It will want to give aid, and the Obama Administration will pretend not to notice.

Of course, there is only so much containment can do, and only for so long. Just as North Korea wriggled free of conventional containment, it will find ways to proliferate. It isn't even hard when China, with chutzpah almost as great as North Korea's, more-or-less openly abets North Korea's flagrant violations of three U.N. resolutions it voted for. That means that containment can only slow the pace of proliferation until North Korea's clients can reverse engineer their own products.

2. Constrict

Because I think critics have a responsibility to offer better ideas, I've laid out specific proposals that are designed to support more effective diplomacy and restore deterrence, or failing that, to rid the world of this regime once and for all. Sticking with diplomacy for the time being, let's assume that North Korea can't be disarmed unless coerced. I believe, despite my skepticism, that it's worth trying to coerce North Korea into a negotiated disarmament through financial and diplomatic constriction. Failing this, I would advocate deliberate efforts to catalyze internal opposition, destabilize the regime, and achieve eventual reunification with the South under a representative government. The preferred means of coercion is to focus so much financial pressure on the regime that we would see what we saw by late 2006 -- a new North Korean interest in negotiations. Sure, that interest was probably disingenuous and intended only to get that pressure lifted, but an unimpeachable source tells us just how substantial that pressure was.

We think we know why North Korea is softening, or at least appears to be. We’ve been working on an in-depth profile of the North Korean economy, and it is in serious trouble. The North Korean economy had been in weak but steady recovery since 1999, growing about 15 percent over the next six years despite its isolation and increasing backwardness. Then came a new setback. Last year the national income contracted by 1.1 percent, according to the South Korean government. Our research suggests the main reason for the downturn was that U.S.-led sanctions hit harder than most people realize. Now more than ever, North Korea needs the financial benefits of a nuclear deal to survive.

The sanctions struck a feeble economy from many sides. The United States led actions to shut down North Korea’s missile trade, and put the squeeze on its illicit smuggling and counterfeiting revenue. The black-market rate on North Korea’s currency plummeted after a small bank in Macau, central to the North’s money-laundering activities, was shut down. Japan effectively cut off a heavy flow of remittances to Pyongyang from North Koreans in Japan. We estimate that together with legal arms sales, revenue from contraband—including the production and trafficking of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, smuggling of liquor and endangered-species parts, to name a few—may have accounted for as much as half of North Korea’s exports in the late 1990s but has fallen to roughly 15 percent in recent years due to sanctions. In the meantime, aid now finances 40 percent of imports. There are benefits to playing nice in the nuclear talks—or pretending to.  [Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard, Newsweek, Sept. 15, 2007, archived here]

Treasury's September 2005 anti-money laundering measures against Banco Delta Asia cut off its access to the international banking system and blocked one of the North Korean regime's most important conduits for recouping the profits from its illegal activities and weapons sales abroad. Overnight, North Korean front companies' income stream was dammed. They sought new banks elsewhere, but Treasury followed them. Senior Treasury officials, including Undersecretary Stuart Levey, visited banks in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, reminding them of the risks of doing business with North Korea, and stating publicly that it was "almost impossible to distinguish between the North's legitimate and illegitimate dealings." As a result, Levey said, "some two dozen financial institutions across the globe had voluntarily cut back or terminated their business with North Korea." Although North Korea is exceptionally opaque, a few other key signs suggest how much impact Treasury's actions had. The leader of North Korea's small clique of European investors conceded that "[t]he impact [was] severe." The regime was forced to sell off some of its gold reserves on the London and Bangkok markets. In January 2006, according to published reports, Kim Jong Il told Hu Jintao that he feared that the sanctions would cause the collapse of his regime.

This was enough to coerce North Korea into significant concessions, at least on paper. To be fair, Marcus has expressed skepticism that financial pressure alone can coerce North Korea into disarming, and I think his doubts are well founded. But my proposals go far beyond putting pressure on a few isolated banks. If Treasury would declare the entire North Korean government to be an entity of primary money laundering concern under 31 U.S.C. § 5318A, just as it has done previously to the governments of Nauru and the Ukraine, the effects on North Korea would be far greater than those we saw in 2006, and far greater than those we see in the case of Iran today. I also advocate a more aggressive use of Executive Orders 13,382 and 13,551 -- the former signed by Bush at Bolton's urging, the latter signed recently by President Obama -- to freeze the assets of Chinese entities that do business with North Korea. Finally, North Korea's drug dealing and counterfeiting could be a basis for criminal prosecutions that could include asset forfeiture counts. The objective of these measures would be to scare Chinese banks and South Korean companies away from doing business with North Korea, sustaining the regime, and undermining international sanctions. Yes, this would cause upset among certain quarters in China and South Korea that aren't nearly as upset about the proliferation threat North Korea poses to the United States. There would be ways to mollify South Korea, which is, after all, simultaneously one of the world's wealthiest nations and a U.S. military dependent. China's purported economic leverage over the United States is often exaggerated, but its economy is now showing alarming signs of fragility. China might increase its trade surplus in boorish nationalistic hostility, but it would not sacrifice its economic relationship with the United States to maintain one with North Korea.

Of course, this isn't just an issue of diplomatic coercion, international security, or law enforcement. If there were strong moral arguments for isolating South Africa economically, there is a far stronger moral case for a similar campaign against North Korea.  I can't see a reason to distinguish those cases in North Korea's favor that doesn't seem profoundly hypocritical. Would international isolation be enough to achieve real and lasting disarmament or end North Korea's crimes against humanity? Because it's never been tried in a sustained and comprehensive way, and because we've never made financial constriction the consequence of failing to meet benchmarks and deadlines, I don't know. I do think, however, that we're obliged to try.

This seems like an appropriate point to address Professor Haggard's arguments about food aid. I'll begin with the best empirical evidence I've seen on the question of diversion:

When asked about the international humanitarian aid program, which at its peak in principle was feeding more than one-third of the population, only 57 percent of the refugees knew of the food aid. The refugees who expressed awareness of the humanitarian aid program were then asked if they themselves had received food aid. Only 3 percent responded affirmatively—more than 96 percent indicated that they had not received aid. [link]

Maybe there isn't as much diversion as these data suggest, because the recipients may not know where their meager food rations come from. No one really knows, because North Korea doesn't let anyone check, but there are strong moral arguments on both sides of the food aid question. Haggard and Noland favor aid. I don't favor it until we demand and get better monitoring, but I respect their views. It would be both wrong and useless to punish the North Korean regime by trying to starve its victims -- the regime doesn't need our help to do that. If I had any confidence that the neediest North Koreans would eat what we send, I'd even be willing to overlook all that the regime wastes on expensive liquor, cars, watches, and yachts while orphans starve in front of train stations. If we could verify the effective use of our aid, I'd support it. If we can't, our aid will do more harm than good. And to the extent we just don't know, it's the regime's obligation to get out of our way and let us meet our responsibility to find out. Until then, there are needy people in other countries we can feed.

Unfortunately, the World Food Program still hasn't secured enough concessions on monitoring, so I worry that worry that our aid would do more harm than good. First, when the regime diverts our aid to its loyalists, we perpetuate the very system that starves North Korea's expendable classes. Second, as Prof. Haggard and Mr. Noland argued here, when diverted aid preferentially fulfills the needs of the military and the elite, it undermines the WFP's leverage to demand access to other, needier recipients. Third, aid that isn't diverted first is distributed though the Public Distribution System (PDS), a system we've long suspected of political discrimination against citizens at the bottom of the songbun ladder. Whether you call that diversion or not, it's still hideous, and it violates long-standing humanitarian aid principles. Fourth, given that North Koreans now depend primarily on the markets for their food supply, we should worry that if regime loyalists are eating well on food aid, the regime may feel at liberty to crack down on the markets that are feeding everyone else. Markets were the most important factor in ending the Great Famine and have managed, however imperfectly, to prevent it from recurring.

Some have argued that it was food aid, not markets, that ended the Great Famine, but if that's true, why didn't we see a recurrence of the famine in 2008, when North Korea arbitrarily evicted almost the entire WFP feeding program and slashed the number of alleged recipients by two-thirds? I feel silly admitting this now, but my alarmist prediction of such a consequence was the main point I chose to press in my 2005 meeting with Ambassador Bolton. My heart was in the right place, but I was still wrong. Could that be because many of us had overestimated the effect food aid has on the supply of food available to "expendable" North Koreans?

Admittedly, the arguments run both ways. Some diverted aid probably leaks into the markets, thus depressing market prices to a degree. There are also ways to mitigate the risk of diversion, such as giving high-energy biscuits and corn instead of rice, conducting long-term nutritional surveys, and demanding unannounced monitoring.  Ideally, the WPF would do its own distribution and cut the inefficient, corrupt, discriminatory, and untrustworthy Public Distribution System out of the process entirely. And isn't the burden on the North Korean government to demonstrate that our aid will help, rather than harm, those whose need is greatest, rather than merely sustaining the regime, or serving as what Marcus calls "balance of payments support?" I think so.

3. Collapse

In my comment to his post, I should have pressed Prof. Haggard for a clearer definition of "neocon" in the foreign policy context. After all, the term originated as a description for a school of thought about domestic social policy. In its modern usage, the term has become an epithet in search of a definition more precise than "anyone to the right of Jimmy Carter." Frankly, I'd love to know if his regime change policy in Libya qualifies Barack Obama, or whether my advocacy of the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Korea disqualifies me. Does "neocon" mean that one must be at least as Wilsonian as Samantha Power? Is it a disqualification to believe, as I do, that our primary means to influence or supplant hostile regimes ought to be the empowerment of indigenous resistance rather than direct intervention? Unfortunately, the debate about North Korea is too Procrustean for such nuances. The moderators of the debate have steered it away from anything but the false choice between appeasement and war.

I've already said enough about the first of these choices. With respect to the latter, deterring North Korea means threatening it with something whose consequences scare it (and its Chinese sponsors) more than they scare us. The threat of war obviously doesn't scare North Korea as much as we used to think it did, but it scares me. The F.P.E. has a banal cliche for it: "All options are on the table." There shouldn't be anything banal about it in the context of a place as congested with civilian life as central Korea. Having served with U.S. Forces Korea for four years and married into the Korean nation, the implications of conventional deterrence are unthinkable to me. By comparison, it seems august to advocate the restoration of deterrence through political subversion rather than heavy ordnance. Subversion has some obvious advantages: it can be tailored to deter smaller provocations, it does not involve the United States as a direct combatant, and at least initially, it would rely exclusively on non-violent methods. Much of what I take pleasure in calling subversion in the context of North Korea is constitutionally protected, if imperfectly, in the world's happier quarters. North Korea will complain, but shouldn't expect us to listen, given its long history of political subversion against South Korea. Subversion is a real deterrent that attacks the regime where it knows it is vulnerable. It is also an effective pressure point against China, which fears nothing more than the overthrow of a friendly dictatorship and the outbreak of chaos along its border. If we can raise a credible subversive threat to North Korea, China will have an incentive to shift away from propping the regime up, toward helping us force diplomatic resolutions of the nuclear threat and all the other threats our diplomacy hasn't touched yet.

Members of the F.P.E. who say they want stability in North Korea usually say this because they're worried about loose nukes. The concern is obviously an important one, but it's misplaced. First, is the risk of loose nukes from an embattled regime really greater than it is with the status quo? Second, North Korea's main nuclear facilities are concentrated at Yongbyon, a place within the regime's political core and the last place it would allow to slip out of its grasp. Third, a regime that finds its survival suddenly in doubt isn't going to flail around making more enemies. Which prospective faction might have an interest in proliferating North Korean nukes, aside from the one that's proliferating them now? Finally, and even absent foreign subversion, an armed domestic opposition will eventually arise in North Korea anyway, just as it did in totalitarian Libya and Syria. If so, isn't it better if that opposition is friendly to us than to see it becomes a vehicle for China's ancient territorial claims, and a source of future conflict? No one has argued more persuasively than Haggard and Noland that economic changes in North Korea are causing social changes, and that those changes will eventually lead to political changes, too. Regimes that can't bend to those pressures are brittle; they tend to shatter violently. We should be trying to "engage" the North Korean people to pressure the regime and its Chinese sponsors, to shape the direction of a united Korea's future, to achieve negotiated reunification, and to deter Chinese intervention. Unlike bombing, subversion of this regime might even improve the lives of the North Korean people, although inevitably, plenty of blood will be spilled first. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome for the North Korean people that does not involve much needless waste of life, but at least the waste is finite if the regime ends.

As far as we know, there is no political opposition in North Korea. A year ago, there wasn't one in Libya or Syria, either. Like the regimes in Libya and Syria, the North Korean regime controls the guns and won't hesitate to use them. Even so, we've all read the recent reports about market protests, anti-regime graffiti, and isolated acts of resistance and concluded that they can't all be wrong. North Korea polices speech and thought far more comprehensively than even Libya or Syria, but no state can be omniscient. Witness to Transformation and the remarkable data that form its major premise suggest that the people of North Korea are more discontented and less isolated than ever. At some point, dissent overburdens the state's capacity to police it, and the state must recalibrate its standards to enforce any standards at all. Markets and smugglers are already bringing radios, computers, flash drives, and MP4 players into North Korea, and they could also flood North Korea with cheap cell phones. Unlike Orascom phones, these could be put in the hands of the "wavering" and "hostile" classes in the outer provinces, couldn't be shut off or monitored by the regime, and could use a signal that would let them call anyone on the entire Korean peninsula, or get news from anywhere on earth. I wouldn't oppose (and would likely support) the idea of arming an opposition movement should one arise, and I can think of several ways to do that clandestinely. For now, however, we should limit ourselves to propagating dissenting ideas and helping people to organize around them. If dissent spreads widely enough among the population, it will affect the security forces, too. In due course, they will succumb to corruption and divisions, and weapons will be available. This is the part where I expect China and North Korea to start taking diplomacy seriously for a change.

This will be controversial to some, but it shouldn't be. Wasn't it proponents of the Sunshine Policy who promised us transformational engagement, even as the regime insisted it would never allow this "imperialist’s old trick" to work? If these proponents were sincere, why should they object if North Koreans use smuggled cell phones to call their business partners in China or their relatives in South Korea, or to form clandestine unions, churches, or political parties? Maybe it will be controversial because another consequence will be the crystallization of resistance from latent dissent, but Sunshine's proponents would sometimes whisper in the ears of hard-liners that Sunshine would do the same. What they could never tell us is why this regime should continue to exist.

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