I have a piece up at Asia Times on Donald Trump’s North Korea options: waste it, sanction it (and China), or have a burger with Kim Jong Un: Trump, North Korea, bombs, and burgers.
“Kinda crippling sanctions” got another workout at the UN on November 30, highlighting a point I made in the piece that the US and PRC are interested, for differing reasons, in 1) maintaining North Korea’s status as an international pariah but 2) keeping it on life support.
The PRC’s motives are pretty simple: North Korea isolated and hopelessly reliant on the PRC is infinitely preferable to a North Korea pivoting away from the PRC to engage with the US, Japan, and/or South Korea.
US motives, I think, are somewhat more complicated: There’s loyalty to a lazily-executed denuclearization strategy that has so far failed miserably; there’s also the fact that the “North Korea threat” allows the United States to maintain and upgrade its military posture not just in South Korea but also in North Asia to provide heft and credibility to the China-containment regime.
Bottom line is North Korea is highly unlikely to surrender its nukes for reasons Muammar Qaddafi, if he were alive, would find compelling; the PRC still has insufficient incentive to take the highly risky step of cratering the regime through a genuine economic blockade; and the US was, at least until the North Korean ICBM program began to develop some homeland-threatening credibility, quite happy to let the situation drag on a.k.a. strategic patience.
US bestie Japan, I imagine, is also not too interested in North Korea regime collapse and the emergence of a competing Korean powerhouse spanning the whole peninsula either.
So you get incremental stuff like this:
Diplomats said the new sanctions further clarify that the “livelihood” exemption, which allowed the Chinese imports, is meant only to protect the livelihoods of those currently living inside North Korea, not Chinese people or companies doing business with the country.
North Korea’s main ally and largest trade partner, China, hailed the sanctions as striking a balance between punishing the rogue nation and protecting its people.
“The resolution adopted by the council today demonstrates the uniform stand of the international community against the development by DPRK of its nuclear missile programs and forward the maintenance of the international non-proliferation regime,” China’s ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said, adding that the measures “are not intended to produce negative consequences on DPRK’s humanitarian situation”.
You may notice that, thanks to the UN sanctions resolution, as long as the DPRK keeps its nukes the PRC has a license to ratchet up the economic pressure on North Korea for whatever reason, whether it's endangering the world through WMD or just inching too close to the US. That's pretty sweet.
I should add that one motive for the US pushing the UN sanctions strategy is it sets the table for US national “secondary” sanctions targeting countries and enterprises that continue to do business with North Korea. That strategy was used by the Obama administration with reasonably good effect in the case of Iran, especially against highly vulnerable European institutions that were canoodling on Tehran trade; the PRC was also targeted though Chinese “backfilling” via barter & RMB-denominated transactions was a continual headache for the US.
There is every indication that Hillary Clinton intended to clone the Iran strategy on North Korea when she became President, not necessarily in hopes of denuclearizing North Korea as much as having a perpetual US sanctions club ready to beat the Chinese.
Believe it or not, the US had already road-tested the strategy of threatening PRC international financial institutions over North Korea back in the Bush administration. It is apparently remembered only by me that the money-laundering designation of Banco Delta Asia in Macau was intended to impress and cow the PRC with a demonstration of the power of the US Treasury Department financial sanctions death star.
One reason the PRC is deeply engaged in the North Korean UN sanctions effort (other than its utility in keeping North Korea isolated, flat on its behind, and reliant on China) is to sustain and channel the UN track and avoid giving the US a legal basis and political justification to impose national sanctions.
The energetic PRC efforts to internationalize the RMB should not be understood primarily as an attempt to replace the Almighty Dollar as the international reserve currency. They are meant to ensure that, if the US deploys the secondary sanctions weapon again, the PRC has the international financial infrastructure in place to conduct its business without the need to clear transactions through the US Fed, as is the case with all dollar transactions conducted through the international clearing networks such as SWIFT.
The concept that all significant dollar transactions touch base in America is why the US government can drop the hammer on those European banks that paid gigantic fines for business they did out of Europe with Iran, Cuba, Sudan, etc.
Thus endeth the lesson.
Back to North Korea, which can be regarded a) as the last great treasurehouse in Asia unexploited by Western capitalism and b) the chessboard upon which the US, China, and Japan play the North Asian Great Game.
The Chinese play wei-qi, the strategy game; Shinzo Abe plays multi-dimensional chess as he juggles the needs of the US alliance with the reality that Japan must have the capability to act independently; Donald Trump apparently just wants to play checkers.
I previously wrote about Trump’s disinterest in complex multilateral Asian initiatives like TPP and the pivot and his preference for simple bilateral deals with immediately realizable benefits.
You know, like normalizing relations with North Korea, sticking a finger in the PRC’s eye, and jumping the line ahead of South Korea and Japan in pursuing economic advantages in the North.
In other words: Eat the burger, Donald.
I expect the foreign policy/military/security quadrant is laboring mightily to convince him otherwise, since it is totally committed to the pivot architecture. I see the pivot as a futile, expensive, dangerous, and ultimately doomed gambit to sustain American pre-eminence in Asia past its sell-buy date but that’s just me, and maybe devotees of offshore balancing like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump knuckle under to the blandishments of what is, frankly, the main business unit of the US government and a trillion-dollar presence in America’s economy and politics.
Trump’s initial stimulus/pork barrel/institutional bribery plans centered on a supersized 350 ship navy, so I expect he will find it equally expedient to give it some ego-enhancing missions in the South China Sea. CSIS is already agitating for its precious FONOPs (“Mischief Reef! Gotta do Mischief Reef!”) even though the underlying strategy of isolating the PRC as an UNCLOS renegade is pretty much an omnishambles with Duterte’s tilt toward China.
In any case, “Presided over U.S. retreat from Asia” is a resumé bullet point that any president would happily defer to his successor.
So I’m leaning toward big ticket muddling instead of opportunistic burger munching.