Best Defense

Punitive sanctions on North Korea?: Pyongyang’s loss may be Iran’s gain

By Daniel Saraceno Best Defense deputy chief, worrisome Korean incidents bureau Panel discussions over hot button issues often devolve to polarized extremes, though sometimes offering that special moment where you realize all is not lost in the world of politics and reason. Such was the case at last week’s "what if?" session at the Korea ...

Majid/Getty Images
Majid/Getty Images

By Daniel Saraceno
Best Defense
deputy chief, worrisome Korean incidents bureau

Panel discussions over hot button issues often devolve to polarized extremes, though sometimes offering that special moment where you realize all is not lost in the world of politics and reason. Such was the case at last week’s "what if?" session at the Korea Economic Institute, which focused on regional reactions if North Korea were to be definitively blamed for the destruction of the 1,200-ton South Korean naval corvette Cheonan and the death of 46 sailors. By the way, North Korean culpability is a possibility which for 80% of South Koreans is an unquestionable fact, according to the panel.

Surely this topic would promise to elicit worst-case Apocalyptic scenarios of retaliation, Taepodong nuclear strikes, four horsemen and the obligatory nod to the Mayans for getting it right in regards to 2012 — the date which North Korea has been looking forward to as the 100th birthday of its Great Leader Kim Il Song. Or so I thought.

Most of the discussion focused on prospects for economic sanctions against the North, followed up by a "you’d better not do this again"– seriously, that’s what they said. As the international community has been sanctioning Pyongyang pretty harshly since its 2007 nuclear test, most of the focus has turned to China. Which is natural — China is Kim’s single largest patron, consuming 70 percent of all of North Korea’s exports.

Sanctions have already yielded less than stellar results in Iran, who also enjoys China’s patronage, to the tune of 460,000 barrels of oil a day. Getting the Chinese to even consider increased Iranian sanctions, much less getting on board, has been a chore for the Obama administration. Asking China to join the international community in escalating sanctions on both trading partners may be just short of impossible, meaning we may be forced to choose.

China has a vested interest in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula, and fears that harsh sanctions will lead to the North’s collapse, an influx of Korean refugees into Chinese territory, and the birth of an American ally on its border. China’s interest in stability was referenced repeatedly, especially when more hawkish options, such as covert ops to "even the score" with Kim Jong Il, were suggested.

Not to say there wasn’t a silver lining. The panel broke most moments of tension with the a reassuring declaration that, no matter what the United States or any other nation would like to do, the final decision is South Korea’s alone to make. Ultimately, when the wrong decision could result in the destruction of Seoul from North Korean artillery strikes, giving the South the final call seems like a pretty reasonable option to me, and perhaps the smartest thing I’ve heard all year.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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