Obama Riffs on Bush As Pyongyang Stays on Tempo

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Generally, I think sanctions have little effect except to please domestic constituencies in the sanctioning state and to give other states opportunities to fill the void. That’s why I generally agree with Tad Farrell’s yawning acknowledgment of the Obama administration’s burst of sanctions activity on Pyongyang.

As some analysts have already commented, this new round of U.S sanctions will likely be regarded as “meaningless” by the DPRK.

It is important to remember that the U.S has had virtually no economic contact with Pyongyang since prior to the Korean War, and having already placed numerous sanctions on the country, has very little leverage left – if any at all in unilateral terms. And as I have previously explained, for the type of ‘targeted’ sanctions currently being pursued to really bite, China would have to start implementing them with a lot more vigor. While Hillary Clinton visited Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to discuss exactly this issue last Thursday, the fact that the U.S chose not to consult with Beijing before announcing the new sanctions would not have bode well to secure Chinese cooperation on the issue , Foreign Policy.com suggests.

With the new sanctions unlikely to change things in Pyongyang, Ken Lieberthal is correct in suggesting that “The one approach that has caught North Korea’s attention in the past is financial sanctions that disrupt its access to the international banking system.” Indeed, George Bush’s freeze of DPRK assets held by the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) bank in 2005 caused significant consternation in North Korea. However, even this was not without unintended consequences. Indeed, the BDA freeze was very likely one of the motivating factors behind North Korea’s July 2006 missile tests and its October 2006 nuclear test – a series of tests that ultimately pushed the Bush administration to negotiate the frozen funds in return for a rejuvenation of the 6 Party Talks. It may have been this record, in combination with North Korea’s post-Cheonan warning on further sanctions, that led Washington, keen to avoid further belligerency, to opt for a symbolic ‘tightening’ of the current set up and a limited approach to bank freezes, as opposed to anything more substantive.

Even though the new sanctions proposed by the U.S appear to make little difference, North Korea has nevertheless reacted vehemently to them – labeling them a violation of the spirit of the recent UNSC statement. They likely also contributed to the recent flurry of nuclear threats in response to the U.S & ROK naval exercises. But although Pyongyang has warned that both the sanctions and naval drills ‘present a grave threat to the peace and security,’ history would suggest otherwise. But at the same time, history would also suggest that symbolic ‘tightening’ of existing sanctions will have no affect on North Korea’s future strategic thinking. Instead, it seems increasingly clear that the U.S and South Korea will have to simultaneously embark on a credible engagement strategy with North Korea if things are to ever change on the peninsula. Of course, they could always opt for regime change a la Iraq, since we all know how well that worked out.

And, true to form, Pyongyang has retorted with the old chin music.

Meanwhile, China’s semi-official China News Service reported on the additional sanctions to be placed on North Korea as revealed Sunday by Robert Einhorn, U.S. State Department special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control. The news service said some analysts have voiced concerns that if the United States attempts to target North Korean economic groups in the manner it employed against Macao’s BDA bank, North Korea would respond aggressively with a third nuclear test. It added that North Korea, protesting South Korean and U.S. sanctions, has several times used the term “on the verge of war” to describe the current situation.

As the middle graph argues, the Obama administration has at least learned from the Bush administration, which neocons should acknowledge. Whether or not neocons actually are happy is another matter. Some arguments, though, tell me even the most belligerent are just making noise to stave off cynicism. But, don’t let that last rebuke in the third graph lead you to believe I want engagement, because there’s little evidence engagement leads to regime change, either. I just want this unending contest between dwindling hyperpowers and angry shrimp to continue, like Willy Wonka waiting for the elevator to smash the glass ceiling. I’m sure of only one thing: things will change when they change. And then, 10 scholars will quibble about the marginal significance of sanctions. I do feel for the North Korean people. I just think there’s worse predicaments than living in Korea.

Filed under: East Asia, Korea, Military, Politics, USA, WMD Tagged: barack h. obama, bda, dprk. buh, missiles, nukes, robert einhorn, sanctions, treasury


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