Monday Morning Roundup: Things to Read



One feature of the current media ecology is that when news breaks, the outlets in which pundits can magically appear is virtually limitless. As we would expect, most of this instant expertise is also immediately forgettable. But as we would also expect, the sheer volume also contains some gems. Here are some threads on the current state of play that are fresh and insightful.


Evan Osnos includes a discussion of the logic of deterrence in an excellent long-form piece at the New Yorker, with some reporting from Pyongyang itself. If I were to assign one, single piece to sum up the current state of play, this would be it. Osnos covers the political and economic as well as military state of play and even invokes Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling, who pioneered the strategic implications of the chicken game. Osnos’ punchline: we really don’t know anything about North Korean intentions, and coupling the madman theory with such ignorance is more than a little risky.

But if you want a primer on the deterrence question, go to Amy Zegart at the Atlantic. Zegart spells out a number of rookie mistakes: issuing hollow threats; mistaking power and influence; talking loudly while carrying a small stick; and weakening resolve by dividing public opinion. She coins a great term too: “deterrence malpractice.”

Getting to a Deal

Behavioral economics has swept the profession, and has even moved into the field of international relations (for example, see this collective research project that I co-edited at the journal International Organization). At Lawfare, James Davis at the University of St. Gallen has a nice piece showing you how the bargaining dynamics change when you introduce the well-known “endowment effect”: that I value something I own much more than the price I would pay for it at an auction. The consequence: the bribe price of getting rid of North Korea’s weapons is higher than the bribe price of slowing down Iran because the country has broken out.

Which provides me the opportunity to flag a piece by Robert Litwak from earlier in the year, also at the Atlantic, which outlines the relevance of the Iran deal for thinking about a North Korean settlement.  We seem pretty far away, but if things break someone needs to be thinking harder about the parameters of talks than anyone appears to be doing at the moment.


Everyone—including Marc Noland, Kent Boydston and I—seems to be badmouthing the new sanctions resolution. For a broadly balanced, but nonetheless skeptical, account see for example Joseph Dethomas at 38 North. Talk about behavioral economics and a framing effect: if the US hadn’t released its wildly unrealistic opening bid, and if the President hadn’t almost immediately trashed UNSC 2375 we might have viewed the final resolution more favorably. 

But everyone knows that the source of skepticism is ultimately in implementation as much as the resolution itself. In this regard, we have to give a shout out to the relentless sanctions advocate Josh Stanton, who has an important piece on the reaction of Chinese banks here. He reviews the news reporting, initially broken by DailyNK, that a number of banks are starting to close or even freeze North Korean accounts. There are two theories of the case: that Beijing is using this as an additional point of leverage, perhaps anticipating US secondary sanctions; or that the market is at work, as compliance departments in the bigger banks in particular assess rising country risk. Although good news, the problem is that North Korean entities appear to be relying on Chinese brokers, some of them like Hongxiang that are pretty large. Maybe financial institutions are closing down ties, but this leaves a space for non-financial institutions to step into the breach and provide services. If such firms seek clearing services through the US banking system, the North Korean entities with which they deal do not show up; they are one link further down the chain. Later this week, I will review the Panel of Experts report, which hones in on these issues.

Also, a shout out to New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher, who along with Jane Perlez has been providing some solid coverage from China’s Northeast. But Bradsher has a story in the Times that is virtually unique in pinpointing the constraints North Korea is currently facing. I am a chorus of one saying that Kim Jong Un’s behavior reflects panic rather than confidence, and I have been drowned out by the manic reporting of missiles. But as Bradshear notes, things are not going so well for North Korea at the moment and that is before the current sanctions and bank actions have even kicked in. As I say endlessly, keep an eye on the black market exchange rate; that is the leading indicator of distress and things are fine until they are not.


An old friend, Jia Qingguo, has written one of the more surprising things to come out of China in some time (for the East Asia Forum here). Jia is clearly one of those who believe that North Korea is a strategic liability for China. His response: China should start talking about contingency plans with the US and other concerned countries. Hallelujah! The agenda: securing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and fissile material, refugees, political order if there were a transition, and yes, THAAD. The US has long sought such a dialogue, and such talks might themselves constitute a confidence-building measure between the two countries even if entirely prospective.

If you have read anything out of the ordinary on the case, please post below and help us winnow out the signal from the noise.

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