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Sol Sanders Archive
Tuesday, November 30, 2009     INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING

How to stop N. Korean (and Chinese) rogue tactics: Try what's worked in the past

Another week’s chatter about North Korea’s latest outrage obscures the burning issue: will Beijing ally itself with the U.S., South Korea and Japan to prevent war on the Korean peninsula?


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Whatever is going on behind Pyongyang's kimchi curtain, it's clear a rogue state has determined its very existence depends on dangerous gambles to intimidate its enemies. How else to explain why continuing assistance offers over several decades by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have been accepted opportunistically, but ultimately spurned by the North? At the same time, Pyongyang has been cooperating with other pariah regimes in the clandestine trade of weapons of mass destruction.

By responding only rhetorically to Pyongyang’s recent provocations – a sinking of a South Korean sloop, shelling of a civilian population and exhibiting new nuclear facilities – the anti-Pyongyang alliance comes pitifully close to encouraging North Korea’s strategy. A regime which permitted hundreds of thousands of its less than 25 million to starve in order to fund one of the world’s largest militaries would not turn away from that strategy so long as it were successful. And make no bones about it, the regime wins, surviving as a Communist royal dictatorship, and now, apparently maneuvering through another succession crisis.

The critical issue becomes how long, if as must be anticipated, Pyongyang continues these provocations, South Korea and its allies can afford not to respond. Washington and Tokyo are in luck with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, a realistic and competent executive, heading what is in this world downturn one of its most dynamic economies. But the resignation of his defense minister is a sign of trouble ahead. Inability to deal with its ethnic brothers is bound to erode not only Seoul’s democratic environment but the world’s No. 10 economy.

Talking heads tell us China is the key to unlocking a permanent crisis. Pyongyang’s military economy depends for food and fuel on Beijing’s support. China could theoretically bring ailing Dear Leader Kim Il Jong to heel. But speculating on Beijing leadership’s refusal to do that — including evidence Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs include Chinese swaps — is almost as fruitless as attempting to decode the even more murky Pyongyang picture.

Some explanations are, on the face of it, ridiculous: for example, Beijing fears “a dangerous flow of refugees” if under pressure the North Korean regime implodes. Pray tell: is there anything in Chinese Communist history – in its worst Maoist moments or even now — to suggest human life is so sacred Beijing would not use whatever means to block refugees? More likely, China fears a Pyongyang crackup would result in a reunified Korea, a stronger player in East Asia, and one linked ideologically, if not in formal alliance, with Washington.

Eminent authorities argue for “persuading” Beijing it shares a common interest in stabilizing a non-nuclear peninsular by reining in Pyongyang. On the face of it, how condescending! Can it be Chinese Communist leadership does not recognize its own self-interest in a burning issue on its doorstep for half a century — or, more likely, if it does, to use old diplomatic gobbledygook, they are “conflicted”? Furthermore, with growing friction between Washington — on commercial, financial, political and military levels – achieving a “grand bargain” with Beijing, including Korea, momentarily at least defies the most skilled diplomacy.

Does that mean meeting the next North Korean provocation with military force or tolerating an unstable timebomb for peace in East Asia? No, certainly not given the U.S. present overtaxed military commitments but equally not given the propensity of the crisis to escalate. What it does demand is using whatever means at Washington’s disposal to convince Beijing to move.

Is that a realistic possibility given Washington’s current weakened position?

In 2005, the overly patient Bush Administration imposed stringent sanctions — and more importantly professional enforcement — to pressure Pyongyang. Alas! Its goal was getting the North Koreans back to a conference table for interminable negotiations. There, realistically, Washington’s negotiating strategy, aid from America and its allies as a reward to change the nature of the regime, was a nonstarter. Pyongyang’s acceptance of a liberalized economy would undermine the very basis of governance built on terror. The proof is while Pyongyang has paid lip service to imitating “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, again and again North Korea has retreated into its unique combination of Stalinism and institutionalized corruption.

The 2005 sanctions “worked” temporarily because Washington not only clamped down on North Korea but threatened Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang. That got Beijing’s attention which got Pyongyang’s acquiescence.

It is time again for Washington and its allies aggressively to go after all operations sustaining North Korean enterprise, and that means - whatever the cries of outrage from Wall Street - going after Chinese entities aiding the North. The pressure must also target the "frills"; e.g., Japanese state subsidies to its ethnic-Korean-language schools employing the Pyongyang curriculum.

That would be called, in some circles, “demonizing” China. But in others, it would be called “playing your hand” in what is increasingly a high stakes game of Northeast Asian poker.

Sol W. Sanders, (, writes the 'Follow the Money' column for The Washington Times . He is also a contributing editor for and An Asian specialist, Mr. Sanders is a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International.

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