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Breaking the (Nuclear) Cycle: The Diplomatic Dance with a ‘Soprano State’

The Yongbyon Nuclear Center in the DPRK.

Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford physicist, examines machinery removed from the disabled Yongbyon Nuclear Center in 2008.

During his trip to Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit last month, President Obama visited the Demilitarized Zone that marks the border between North and South Korea. That visit, coupled with the satellite/missile launch that Pyongyang has planned for mid-April, highlights the fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains one of the most intractable challenges facing American foreign policy. It will remain so regardless of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the election in November.

So far, the candidates haven’t spent much time discussing or debating policy toward North Korea. On February 29th, the State Department announced an agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon in exchange for providing food aid. But the Obama administration now says that North Korea’s impending launch violates the country’s international obligations and will make the delivery of food aid unlikely. In Seoul, Obama warned the DPRK that its provocations would backfire. 

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has criticized previous American policies for rewarding North Korea and getting “only illusory cooperation” in return. Instead, Romney proposes harsher sanctions, tougher enforcement of counter-proliferation measures targeted at North Korea, and pressure on China to use its leverage to disarm North Korea.

As a recent Washington Post article noted, the most likely response to an April launch will be a new round of sanctions. As economists and North Korea watchers Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard have observed, both Obama and Romney have indicated support for some kind of sanctions. But sanctions are a tool of policy, not policy themselves. How (and how well) they work depends on how they are used in combination with other political pressures and incentives.

In a New York Times article in early March, I wrote about North Korea’s development under Kim Jong Il into a “Soprano state” – a nickname coined by American officials to mark the regime’s dependence on an array of illicit and criminal activities that produce the cash they need to stay in power. Enforcing the laws against these activities – such as methamphetamine trafficking and counterfeiting American currency – makes certain sanctions necessary. 

But North Korea’s reliance on these activities also identifies a diplomatic bargaining chip. At a time when the country’s leadership transition makes it even more inwardly focused than usual – something American politicians in an election year can surely understand – the leadership’s need for hard currency could be one of the few sources of leverage the U.S. has to achieve its goals.

What we need to know now is how the candidates intend to use that leverage.  As the country moves closer to November, then, we should ask each candidate not only what kind of sanctions he supports, but what purpose those sanctions are intended to serve, and how they would mesh with other pieces of a broader strategy.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens is a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard and a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and at the Miller Center, University of Virginia.

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