Meet The Diplomat writers: Michael Mazza

Article Highlights

  • US should return to successful strategy (abandoned during 6-party talks) of designating money-laundering banks

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  • Weapons program reinforces myth that DPRK lives in a hostile world and reassure NK people that Kim is a strong leader

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  • Historical and cultural ties, moreover, reinforce China’s tendency to stick by its troublemaking ally #DPRK

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Editor's Note: The Diplomat’s Harry Kazianis spoke with Michael Mazza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, to get his view on North Korea’s recent nuclear test, the motivations for such a test, and Beijing’s relations with the “Hermit Kingdom.”

North Korea has tested a 3rd nuclear device. In your view, should the world consider North Korea a full-fledged nuclear power? How close in your estimates is North Korea to deploying a workable nuclear warhead for military application?

Given the secretive nature of the Kim Jong-un regime, it’s difficult to know just how close North Korea is to marrying a nuclear warhead to a missile. But it is almost certainly closer to achieving that goal than it has ever been before. The North’s successful missile launch last December proved that Kim’s scientists have more technological prowess than we often give them credit for. Kim drove home that lesson once again with this latest nuclear test, which produced a more powerful blast yield than the second test device (which likewise showed improvement over the first device). It’s not clear when or if U.S. and allied intelligence agencies will be able to verify or discredit North Korea’s claim that Tuesday’s test was of a miniaturized device, but it’s increasingly difficult to argue that such miniaturization is simply beyond the North’s means.

As such, it’s important that the United States recognize North Korea for what it is: a country that is (a) hostile to America and her allies and (b) has a nascent and growing credible nuclear deterrent. Such recognition will both limit and clarify U.S. policy options going forward.

The DPRK is one of the most heavily sanctioned nations in the world, yet, the hermit kingdom still tests nuclear weapons and rockets. In your view, have sanctions been effective in isolating the regime? Would more sanctions help? Less?

Sanctions have certainly been effective in isolating the Kim regime, but that isolation has not succeeded in convincing Kim Jong-un (or his father before him) to give up his nuclear or missile development programs. Arguably, this is because the Kims and their cronies have determined that nuclear weapons are more valuable to them than joining the “world community,” as President Obama puts it. Still, sanctions do have a role to play and additional measures are needed. The international community may not be able to coax the DPRK into abandoning nuclear ambitions, but it may be able to starve Kim of the resources he needs to make those ambitions a reality.

In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Macao’s Banco Delta Asia (BDA) as a “primary money-laundering concern.” Eventually, the Bush administration prohibited American financial institutions from doing business with BDA. Many foreign banks, concerned for their access to the U.S. financial sector, voluntarily cut ties with BDA. North Korea’s funds at the bank were frozen, which hampered the DPRK’s ability to conduct the illicit activities it depends on for its livelihood. The United States should return to this effective strategy, which was unfortunately later abandoned during the six-party talks. Washington should designate as a “primary money-laundering concern” any bank—including those in China and Europe—found to be providing financial services to North Korea. Preventing the DPRK from doing business with foreign entities and freezing its assets will make it difficult for the regime to pay for its destabilizing nuclear and missile programs.

Some have commented the roll of rocket or nuclear detonations has been more for North Korean domestic audiences than foreign powers -- an attempt by North Korea's new leader to cement his hold on power. Others feel such tests are to show the international community that the DPRK is a strong military power with a capable deterrent. Who do you feel such tests are aimed at and why? Do they achieve their intended goals?

North Korean nuclear and missile tests, as well as other sorts of provocations, have dual audiences.

Kim Jong-un’s commitment to these weapons programs helps demonstrate ongoing commitment to his father’s “military-first” policy, which shores up support for his rule in the Korean People’s Army and may also give him more leeway to make major changes to the KPA’s senior leadership of the sort we saw last year. Successful rocket and nuclear tests also provide Kim with valuable inputs (doubly valuable for their veracity) for his domestic propaganda machine. They reinforce the myth that the DPRK lives in a hostile, threatening world and reassure the North Korean people that Kim is a strong leader—one that can protect them foreign depredations and one whom those foreign predators fear.

Externally, these tests have a couple of intended purposes. First, they do enhance North Korea’s deterrent, which limits choices that South Korea, the United States, and others can make in response to North Korean provocations. The successful 2009 nuclear test was at least partially responsible for the absence of meaningful South Korean and American responses to the sinking of a ROK naval vessel in 2010 and deadly shelling of a South Korean island later that year. Nuclear and missile tests in the face of general global condemnation also signal to the international community that sanctions are an ineffective means of reining in North Korean behavior. They aim to coax the United States and others back to the negotiating table, where North Korea has repeatedly succeeded in extracting concessions while providing little of substance in return. This tactic has been effective in the past; whether it will be so this time around remains to be seen.

China certainly has a role to play when it comes to North Korea. Many look to the various forms of financial assistance Beijing provides as critical to Pyongyang's survival. Is there anyway the United States could persuade China to take a harder line with North Korea or work with the international community to assist in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula?

China, apparently, continues to believe that its fortunes on the Korean peninsula remain tied to the fate of the Kim regime. First, Beijing wants the peninsula to remain divided, with the northern half serving as a buffer between China and the U.S.-allied South. Second, Beijing values the short-term stability provided by the Kim regime’s survival over the long-term stability that would result from regime change in the North (which could be very destabilizing in the interim). Historical and cultural ties, moreover, reinforce China’s tendency to stick by its troublemaking ally.

Convincing Beijing to change that calculation has proven exceedingly difficult and may simply be beyond the reasonably feasible. Still, there are steps that, taken together, might make China reconsider. First, the United States can target Chinese banks doing business with North Korea and attempt to cut them off from the international financial system, as I described earlier. At the same time, the United States could carry out extensive, prolonged military exercises with its South Korean and Japanese allies all around the Korean peninsula, but especially in international waters in the Yellow Sea, where Beijing has made it clear that U.S. ships are unwelcome. Washington might similarly consider regularly sending carrier strike groups to patrol in the Yellow Sea. Further enhancing U.S. and allied missile defenses in the region in response to North Korea’s latest antics will likewise raise concerns in Beijing about a deteriorating security environment. Finally, any time U.S. officials discuss North Korea’s deplorable human rights record, they should mention the Chinese support that enables it. A little public shaming could go a long way in dealing with a country constantly in search of more “respect.”

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