In an obtuse article in the Washington Post, Hitting Kim Jung Il Right in the Cognac, Elizabeth Williamson demonstrates the unhappy results when sniggering condescension, slipshod reporting, and ignorance intersect.
Cloyingly paraphrasing “My Favorite Things”, she lists some of the export items that the United States is blacklisting for North Korea under the UNSCR 1718 luxury goods ban, incorrectly referring to “the State Department's newly released list of no-go goodies”.
As Sean McCormack (correction: Tom Casey--ed.), the State Department spokesman, indicated in his Nov. 29 press briefing, the ban is actually administered by the Department of Commerce, which has not yet published the list on the Federal Register.
But it’s nice to know that Ms. Williamson gets her leaks from the State Department, which is probably grateful for access to so obliging and careless a conduit.
Anyway, Ms. Williamson describes the ban as punitive sanctions designed to discommode Kim Jung Il and his inner circle by depriving them of the luxuries they crave.
She enlists the services of one “Jerrold M. Post, psychiatrist and director of the political psychology program at George Washington University” in an attempt to unravel the mystery of this apparently frivolous ban on frivolity:
"It sounds very clever to me," Post said of the U.S. list. "It's designed only to frustrate the senior circle of cronies," he said, sparing most North Koreans, who survive on less than $1,000 a year.
Putting the kibosh on silk scarves, designer fountain pens, furs and leather luggage might inconvenience North Korea's leaders and their families, but Post doubts the luxury ban will inspire an institutional change of heart.
"Part of the support he musters with his followers is having the courage to stand up and forge forward," despite an iPod shortage, Post said. So lack of luxury won't end North Korea's weapons program "unless they use Hennessy to fuel their rockets."
Contra Post and Williamson, the ban on luxuries has a genuine significance that goes beyond Kim Jung Il’s bizarre and expensive appetites, or his eagerness to slake them.
Kim relies on his exclusive access to imported luxury goods both to demonstrate his power and exalted position through conspicuous consumption, and to dispense patronage to the North Korean elite in order to ensure its gratitude, respect, and loyalty.
The luxury goods ban is an attempt to diminish Kim Jung Il’s domestic prestige and increase the vulnerability of his regime by making it impossible for him to provide the North Korean elite with the lifestyle accessories it desires, especially in the New Year’s season when oriental gift-giving and renewal of social ties traditionally occurs.
In other words, it’s another piece of all-too-clever psy-ops directed toward the Bush administration’s unchanging goal of regime change in North Korea.
Making the gift-giving season a little awkward for Kim Jung Il might not be a big deal, except for the following caveat:
It won’t work.
Given the porous and uneven enforcement of the international sanctions regime, the luxury good ban isn’t going to hold up; even if it did, the North Korean elite is more interested in the outcome of Kim Jung Il’s high-stakes struggle over the nuclear program than the non-appearance of Hennessey and Marlboros in this year’s gift basket.
Instead, the ban highlights the Bush administration’s never-ending quest to push North Korea to the limit and foment regime change, and undercuts our stated willingness to provide security guarantees to Pyongyang, which are the foundation for the DPRK’s participation in the Six-Party Talks.
Like so many other foreign policy initiatives of this administration, the luxury ban is another example of gratuitous, self-defeating malice undercutting the incremental engagement that is America’s only effective foreign policy instrument in the post-Iraq world.
It’s provocative and destabilizing but in an ineffectual and counterproductive way that probably heightens North Korean caution and resolve while isolating, discrediting, and marginalizing the United States in the execution of the diplomatic initiatives we have so grudgingly endorsed.
Merry Christmas, Kim Jung Il.