Alex Massie perceptively wonders whether there is anything to be done with North Korea other than Doing Nothing (Much), as every other option is fraught with problems. He kindly says that he would like to hear from me on the subject.

Always pleased to oblige. Here goes.

A policy is about (at least) four things:

  • The object of the policy: its willpower + strengths and weaknesses
  • The policy-creator: ditto
  • Side-effects: prospects for collateral damage or unearned benefits to others 
  • Timescale: balancing short-term v medium-term v long-term outcomes.

The Object of Policy

As Alex points out North Korea is a very special case, seemingly relishing its pariah status. But perhaps too it is not quite as ‘isolated’ as we tend to think? Thus:

The biggest myth is that North Korea remains isolated. Despite supposedly comprehensive sanctions, Pyongyang today has diplomatic and commercial relations with more than 150 countries, including most European Union members.

North Korea trades its abundant gold reserves—estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 tons—in cities like London, Zurich and Hong Kong, and buys and sells shares on the New York Stock Exchange via a legitimate London-based brokerage firm it essentially owns. While there are no figures on the volume of such transactions, the former U.S. diplomat says that such activities are "a substantial source of hard currency for North Korea."…

In 2008, the country’s overall trade rose 30 percent from the previous year, reaching a record $3.8 billion, including imports of $2.7 billion, according to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency…

So I agree with Alex that more/tighter sanctions are unlikely to make much difference on the inner core of the regime other than fortify them in their excitement at being the centre of attention. But we may get some extra sanctions anyway, just because eg the USA has to show that it is not impotent.


The main policy driver is the USA, whose own prestige is now at stake. Russia and China will have no sympathy for North Korea. But they will not expect to be really threatened by anything N Korea does, so can quietly enjoy watching – or even where possible in a deniable way intensifying – Washington’s predicament, as part of keeping the Americans in check (if you can’t beat them, at least stall them).


The factor which makes North Korea so powerful is its proximity to South Korea. A bit like the cops negotiating with a crazed killer who has not just a gun but hundreds of guns and knives and poison arrows pointing straight at a hostage. In the movies a brilliant shot frees the hostage. But in this case even if a brilliant deadly shot or salvo could be identified and fired, the death spasms of the N Korea regime could do untold damage to huge numbers of South Koreans.

In other words, there is massive potential downside for S Korea in doing anything drastic, and not much upside from brisk success (howsoever defined) for eg Russia/China and anyone else in the region. This discourages risk-taking.


North Korea will change over time and (if it does not collapse or get a new more reasonable regime via a coup) it might edge towards becoming a nasty version of Burma – a repressive regime which nonetheless stays afloat quite effectively.

All these factors and many more point to Doing Nothing (Much). Nothing much which is clearly likely to get positive results can be identified. Alex Massie:

… we’re left with a position in which it’s more convenient, in many ways, for all parties to maintain the status quo. That is, you might say, at least a known known. And those are preferable  – in such delicate and dangerous situations – to anything that suggests, let alone encourages, uncertainty.

Why is that in fact not an option?

Because K Korea is not like Zimbabwe or Burma. It plays on its pariah status to export trouble. Mark Steyn:

The regime in Pyongyang is not merely trying to "provoke" America but is demonstrating to potential clients that you can do so with impunity. A black-market economy reliant on exports of heroin, sex slaves and knock-off Viagra is attempting to supersize its business model and turn itself into a nuclear Wal-Mart.

Among the distinguished guests present for North Korea’s October 2006 test were representatives of the Iranian government. President George W. Bush was much mocked for yoking the two nations together in his now all but forgotten "axis of evil" speech, but the Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung reported a few weeks ago that the North Korean-built (and Israeli-bombed) plutonium production facility in Syria was paid for by Tehran. How many other Iranian clients are getting nuclear subsidies? … North Korea [is] the perfect partner for any state that wants to pursue certain projects under the Western radar screen…

It is remarkable in just five years how the world has adjusted to the inevitability of a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear Iran. Nudge it on another half-decade: Whose nuclear ambitions will be unstoppable by 2015? Syria’s? Sudan’s? Selected fiefdoms in Somalia?

Hmm. So Doing Nothing (much) also is risky.

Ideas anyone?

At the point when conventional diplomacy runs out of juice you have to use unconventional ‘other measures’.

What they are or might be depends on all sorts of real-life factors which go beyond this or any blog-post. But they might include consideration of:

  • stopping ships/planes going to/from N Korea to search for illicit technological leakage
  • getting private messages to senior regime people urging them to help topple the regime, or at least to stand aside if it starts to wobble
  • taking advantage of the regime’s paranoia to spread scandalous but plausible disinformation (especially about money) which you know will reach inner circles and make them hate or distrust each other
  • going after N Korean elite and state bank accounts – making it increasingly difficult for the leaders to enjoy their luxuries and loot the state
  • attempts to disrupt N Korean cash-flow
  • starting a well-funded public forum to start active planning for the day when Noth Korea does emerge into normal forms of behaviour: how best to manage its transition and devise the new policies needed?

And so on. All designed to change the currently benign cost-benefit analysis in senior Pyongyang minds.

But that requires nerve, focus and willpower. And an unambiguous determination to raise the costs of bad behaviour to the side creating it.

Not quite the conciliatory ‘message’ the Obama team at this stage appear to believe in?