Choking North Korea

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Jeffrey Lewis, the Arms Control Wonk, has an informative piece on North Korea today, noting that the Bush administration has been throwing stick after stick at Pyongyang with nary a carrot in sight. The effort includes “new strategies to choke off [North Korea’s] few remaining sources of income.” As Lewis says:

The problem… is not too few sticks, but the utter absence of carrots. Sticks and carrots are not fungible; states cannot compensate for a lack of diplomatic incentives by adding potential punishments. Moreover, targeting Pyongyang’s illicit activities might become a bureaucratic exercise in denial—delaying the inevitable choice between regime change and an approach similar to one envisioned by the Clinton Administration.

It’s possible, though, the White House has already made that “inevitable choice”. From the looks of things, the White House has for quite some time actively tried to pursue regime change by strangling North Korea to death financially. Leading conservative hawks like the AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt have long argued that the only thing propping Kim Jong Il’s regime up was foreign aid, and that by rights the government should have imploded long ago.

The problem with this approach is that neither China nor South Korea seem to want to play along, in part because they’re worried about North Korea suddenly collapsing and sending scores of refugees their way, and also in part because they want to see if they can induce North Korea to reform itself economically. As Howard French reports today, many international businessmen think North Korea could open up its markets the way China did in the 1980s. That view might be wrong-headed, but it hasn’t stopped neighboring countries from investing in places like the Kaesong Industrial Zone (with North Korea’s approval). Bush administration officials, none too pleased with these developments, have long tried to press both South Korea and China to cut off economic cooperation, but so long as U.S. policy is nothing more than “bankrupt Kim Jong Il to death,” it seems unlikely that anyone else will hop aboard.

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