Saturday, March 1, 2014

Mishandling One Of The Two Koreas

The Commonwealth Club was the latest stop on the tour for The Two Koreas, an updated look at modern US diplomacy in the "land of morning calm."  I have not yet read The Two Koreas so it's going on my watch list for my next trip to the SF Public Library.  The political division of Korea is one of the last Cold War legacies on the planet, aside from the Castro regime in Cuba.  The North Korean regime exhibits behavior that the American negotiators of the Agreed Framework do not completely understand.

The Clinton Administration negotiated the Agreed Framework in the 1990s with the Kim family regime.  The IAEA had already discovered that the DPRK was in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  Negotiating in good faith with a regime proven to break faith with agreements is thus an exercise in futility.  This wisdom is lost on Western diplomats who think Oriental despots can be trusted to keep their word.  The Agreed Framework itself allowed lopsided US concessions to the DPRK and next to nothing in return.  What little the DPRK promised was renewed adherence to the NPT, which of course it later abrogated with nuclear tests.

I am profoundly disappointed at the immaturity of key US diplomats who were witness to this willful negligence of US strategic interests in the 1990s.  Political determination to pursue a questionable diplomatic goal should be grounds for career diplomats to raise strenuous objections.  It is difficult to describe the Clinton Administration's policy toward North Korea as a success given the high costs the US paid for the illusion of progress toward normalization.  JPAC's ability to dig up the North Korean countryside for US servicemembers' remains depended on millions of dollars in aid incentives.  The Bush Administration was still releasing funds to North Korea in 2002 under the Agreed Framework, even though it declined to certify the DPRK's compliance.  North Korean intransigence shredded what remained of the agreement.  Competent diplomats could have seen that coming based on North Korea's demonstrated diplomatic record of duplicity.

Independent assessments of light water reactors (LWRs) make it clear that they can still produce weapon-grade plutonium. The GAO's EMD-79-15 report made it clear during the Carter administration that light water reactors were not proliferation-proof.  This NPEC study from 2004 is similarly clear on LWRs' Pu capability.  The IAEA-SM-367/15/08 paper also made this clear.  Any competent diplomat could have leaned on the US intelligence community's technical specialists to confirm that a gift of an LWR to a hostile state will not hinder nuclear weapons development.  American diplomats should not view strategically questionable agreements as resume builders, time fillers, full employment programs, or bestseller book material.  Unfortunately, that is the Agreed Framework's legacy.

Coercion could have succeeded in curtailing the DPRK's nuclear ambitions where the Agreed Framework failed.  North Korea's Room 39 (or Office, or Bureau, or whatever) is the Kim dynasty's primary source of slush fund revenue from illicit activities worldwide.  The Bush Administration launched a comprehensive plan to take apart Office 39 but for some reason never completed it.  Comments on several websites that summarize reports from North Korean defectors are revealing.  Some of these comments indicate that this US effort to shut off North Korea's illicit funding forced the Kim family to make policy changes.  The Kims and their entourage approach all foreign dealings, including diplomatic efforts, as a matter of personal survival.  The Kim dynasty cannot maintain its extravagant lifestyle, its bribes to internal KPA and WPK factions, and its WMD programs without illicit sources of foreign funds.  Third Eye OSINT is convinced that a serious effort to shut down Room 39, its successors, and other Kim regime extralegal funding mechanisms remains the most promising US interagency option for eliciting diplomatic compliance from the DPRK leadership.  The US Treasury designated two banks as nodes of Office 39 in 2010.  It's good to know that at least one US agency is keeping up the pressure.

Any claim that the US is unable to monitor North Korean compliance with nonproliferation accords is very difficult to believe.  The US has long maintained national technical means that enable it to monitor Russia's nuclear arsenal.  This surveillance, together with IAEA physical site visits, has been sufficient to catch North Korea in the act of violating its agreements.  The US does indeed lack a diplomatic capability to assess the intent of leaders in closed societies.  Diplomatic scholars should revisit classical works on Confucian thinking to recognize the ancestor worship and other forms of filial piety the Kim regime demands of its people.  The dead hand of old thinking is alive and well in North Korea.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK completed its report in February 2014.  The objective evidence for barbarity inside the DPRK is as incontrovertible as it is appalling.  News of North Korea's horrors has been available through open sources such as NK News, DailyNK, and various defector sites.  Barbaric regimes do not comply with civilized directives.  This obvious inference escapes US diplomats and intelligence professionals who engage their North Korean counterparts as if an exchange among equals is possible over coffee in Geneva.  Such a comity is impossible so long as barbarity remains unchallenged.  The idealists at the Ploughshares Fund's North Korea section put too much faith in international norms against proliferation.  Barbarians do not subscribe to norms.  They understand threats of punishment backed by demonstrated strength.  Operation Paul Bunyan resolved the JSA axe murder incident on favorable terms for the US and South Korea.  Resolute coercion can make such a difference today.

The US tends to mishandle its relations with at least one of the two Koreas at any given time.  Misguided diplomatic openings to the North risk alienating the South.  It stands to reason that South Korea should be the lead international actor in dealings with its forlorn northern twin.  The Republic of Korea has matured into a modern democracy that ranks very high on numerous global measures of health.  The Democratic People's Republic of Korea ranks at the bottom on almost every conceivable measure.  The US's wisest move would be to defer to its strong ally South Korea in all future negotiations with North Korea.  Koreans understand their kin better than US diplomats who pursue negotiations for their own sake.