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Strategic Dimensions of Economic Assistance for North Korea
Author: Paul Bracken
Published May 25, 2011
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North Korea’s atomic bomb program and the U.S. response to it provide a case study in long-term crisis management. The defining characteristic of a crisis is that it contains turning points, sometimes many of them. In crisis management there are surprises and mistakes. Tight control of policy and especially over the words that go with it are necessary.

Dealing with North Korea’s bomb program is a problem in crisis management. It is not a political negotiation or an exercise in economic reform. Although political negotiation and economic reform are part of crisis management, the main reason for outside involvement in North Korea is to forestall its nuclear armaments. Better political relations between the United States and North Korea and major economic reform may happen, but if they happen absent Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament, a major policy failure with implications far beyond Northeast Asia will have taken place.

The main argument of this paper is that crisis management becomes more difficult as it becomes more multilateral. The single-mindedness of the objective—preventing Pyongyang from getting the bomb—is likely to be dissipated. Extraneous issues can be introduced by other parties. The policy of using multiparty talks is likely to become an end in itself instead of a means to an end. Finally, response to North Korean actions becomes more difficult and likely more conservative. A North Korean nuclear test, for example, is a real possibility, but during multilateral talks Washington will likely view this subject as far too complicated to even think through in advance.

U.S. performance in dealing with North Korea over the past 10 years has been quite good. This conclusion will strike some people as astonishing, but much of the criticism of how the United States has managed the North Korean proliferation crisis seems to focus on short-term disagreements between individuals in and out of government and between the United States and other countries. Week-to-week polemics and disputes give too much attention to the immediate but not to the important. This is a bad approach in health care, in buying stocks, and for disarming North Korea.

Policy analysis with a weekly scorecard misses the larger picture. What has happened over the past decade is the discrediting of the North Korean regime, institutionalization of a new coalition bent on stopping its bomb program, a weakening of North Korea’s conventional military power, and a contraction of its economy. The disarming of Iraq and Libya and the precedent of using force to replace a regime in Baghdad that violated proliferation standards are major changes in the strategic context of policy toward North Korea. They are having an enormous impact on North Korea’s perception of the international environment.

The international economic engagement of North Korea brings new actors and groups (businesses and nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], for example) into the picture much more than in the past. It is a useful development to resolve the North Korean problem as long as it is recognized that the problem remains one of crisis management. One risk is that international economic assistance programs take on an internal momentum of their own that swamps the political objectives for which they were established. This happens in so many different areas that it is virtually a theorem of political science. Policy shapes the politics, rather than politics shaping the policy (Lowi 1964, 677–715). There are clear signs that this dynamic is already in place in the six-party talks dealing with North Korea.

The strategic purpose of international economic assistance—the disarming of North Korea—could be lost sight of because it brings more countries and groups into the picture. A long-term crisis management framework can go a long way toward making sure this does not happen.

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