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Shadow Government

All you need to know about North Korea

North Korea is yanking the world’s chain yet again, sending all relevant parties hither and yon. As we contemplate what to do and the Kim clan perfects its ability to deliver its growing nuclear arsenal to targets in South Korea, Japan and the United States, we could do worse than turn to a rising star ...

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea is yanking the world’s chain yet again, sending all relevant parties hither and yon. As we contemplate what to do and the Kim clan perfects its ability to deliver its growing nuclear arsenal to targets in South Korea, Japan and the United States, we could do worse than turn to a rising star of Korea analysis: Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University. Dr. Lee provides a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with. The basics are not a bad place to start in thinking or rethinking how to deal with the criminal-nuclear enterprise that we call North Korea. Here is an edited version of what he said at a conference in Seoul last week (my commentary is in italics and the final thoughts are my own).

1.    North Korea is "uniquely unique." It is the world’s sole communist hereditary dynasty, the world’s only literate-industrialized-urbanized peacetime economy to have suffered a famine, the world’s most cultish totalitarian system, and the world’s most secretive, isolated country — albeit one with the world’s largest military in terms of manpower and defense spending proportional to its population and national income. The result is an exceptional state, perhaps the world’s most influential regional power commensurate with its territorial and population size and economic and political power.

That is, North Korea has managed some seemingly impossible feats. It has remained a cultish communist dictatorship even though all its like-minded brethren have been relegated to the ash heap of history. It has managed to produce a spate of famines despite the fact that its population is urbanized and literate. And through its combination of supremely disproportionate spending on military forces, its nuclear program, and its unique ability to outfox, out-negotiate, and outplay the world’s industrialized powers, it has become a regional nuclear power with disproportionate influence in Northeast Asia despite its poverty and privation.

2. The other Korea, the one south of the 38th parallel, is a global leader in trade, shipping, automobiles, and electronics. It is also a free democratic polity. And on December 19, South Korea elected Park Geun-hye as president. Park is the first elected female leader in Korea and also in Confucian civilization, which consists of China, Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam and makes up nearly a quarter of the world’s population. The contrast between the two Koreas could not be starker — beyond the obvious, you have a cultish male hereditary dictatorship in the North, and a freely elected female leader in the South.

Development experts and theorists of democratization take note. South Korea has the same culture, historical legacies, and so on as its neighbor to the North. And yet it is an advanced industrial economy and a thriving democracy that has just, despite its Confucian culture, elected a woman as president. It has managed to reach this high point of prosperity and human dignity because of — to reduce a complex set of phenomena to its minimal essence — different institutions than those in the North: democratic and capitalist ones. (I realize that I may be violating some tenet of doctrinaire realism with this observation. For the less doctrinaire, the contrast between the two Koreas is a useful reminder of why we try and favor and even push for democratic capitalism). Given the stark contrast between the two countries one can safely draw at least one conclusion: There is nothing inherent in culture or history that ipso facto should keep a country poor and enslaved.

3. The Park Geun-hye administration and the Obama administration should … not deprive themselves of the credible, non-military deterrent that would weaken or debilitate the Kim regime. They should attack the North Korean regime’s two most glaring systemic contradictions: 1. Over-reliance on its shadowy palace economy instead of making licit goods that are competitive on the world market or opening up to foreign investment and trade worthy of the name. Pyongyang’s palace economy is particularly vulnerable to tools designed to counter international money laundering. 2. [T]he unfeasibility of controlling the population over the long-term through its vast network of prison camps, fear, and thought police; that is, its egregious human rights violations.

The North Korean state is essentially two things: 1) a large money-laundering concern; 2) the world’s largest prison and slave labor camp. Now, however, it is a large money-laundering concern and prison camp that has additionally extorted its way to nuclear weapons. Any U.S. policy should begin and end with the knowledge of what North Korea really is. It is not a state engaged in the normal give-and-take of diplomacy, seeking "security assurances" in return for "denuclearization" or some other such deal conjured up by diplomats whose experience is in dealing with real countries who negotiate in good faith. Rather, North Korea has had a pretty good run with its current approach of extortion, criminality and the deprivation of its own people.

4. The Obama administration is in a position to take the lead on squeezing Pyongyang’s palace economy. It should designate the entire North Korean government a Primary Money Laundering Concern, which is a legal term for entities that fail to implement adequate safeguards against money laundering. It should also enforce Executive Orders 13382 (signed June 2005) and 13551 (signed August 2010), which call for the freezing of suspect North Korean entities’ assets and those of third-country entities suspected of helping North Korea’s WMD proliferation (and criminal) activities. Furthermore, the incoming Park Geun-hye administration is in a position to take the lead in implementing a sustained human rights campaign against Pyongyang. It should vastly increase funding for information transmission efforts into North Korea, encourage North Korean defection and reinforce resettlement programs, and raise global awareness on the Kim regime’s egregious human rights violations so that people living in democratic societies around the globe come to think less of the Kim regime as an oddity or an abstraction and more as a threat to humanity.

North Korea’s nature underscores its vulnerabilities. It cannot survive without laundering money for its dangerous and illicit activities. It should not be treated as a normal country when most of its people are enslaved. The countries threatened by Pyongyang have in their toolkit the ability to treat the entire state apparatus as a criminal enterprise and can block it and anyone (including many Chinese banks and enterprises) doing business with it from engaging in transactions within the international financial and commercial system. Rather than pretending that they are negotiating with just another regime, the United States and South Korea should instead unleash a campaign to highlight just how abnormal and illegitimate the Kim family is. Here is a simple formula that policymakers can use in setting our approach to North Korea: North Korean existence=criminal activity + human enslavement + nuclear exhortation. There may be little to nothing the world can do now about the fact that it has allowed the North to become a nuclear weapons state. But it can and should treat it like one big criminal/slave state.

Some Concluding Thoughts: South Korea and Japan, for reasons that should be obvious (North Korea, China, an unsteady and retrenching American presence), have elected right-of-center hawkish governments. They are uniquely open to dealing with reality, not a common occurrence in international politics. Reality in this case means taking all necessary deterrent measures against a nuclear state (Tokyo and Seoul appear poised to actually call North Korea a nuclear-weapons state, which — for those unfortunate to have witnessed to the unfolding tragedy of North Korea policy — is a big deal). Rather than engage in diplomatic conferences that result in more North Korean extortion, more North Korean nuclear weapons, and more illusions that through combined U.S. and Chinese exertions North Korea can actually be persuaded (against all evidence) that the illegal possession of nuclear weapons actually has a price, we would be wise to consider Dr. Lee’s basic idea. Let’s deal with North Korea as Dr. Lee describes it — a criminal enterprise whose crimes can and must be stopped.

There is another looming problem. A second term in a presidency seems to provide a unique temptation to American secretaries of state across administrations to go for the brass ring-a Nobel Peace Prize for "solving" the North Korean problem. In this case, at least from Pyongyang’s perspective, there is nothing to be solved. North Korea has pretty much what it wants. But now that Seoul and Tokyo (hopefully Washington too?) are ready to call North Korea a nuclear power, there may be one thing to discuss with Mr. Kim: What would happen if he dared use those weapons?

Perhaps to guard against the "North Korea Nobel Peace Prize" temptation, a parallel prize can be created, awarded to those diplomats who avoid attempts to bargain away that which the North has never put on the table, and instead achieve the more modest task of bettering the lot of the North Korean people and putting an end to the many crimes of Kim Jong Un and his cronies.  

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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