Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Positive Steps

In the wake of North Korea's attempted nuclear test, Japan has taken unilateral action to put more pressure on Pyongyang. Effective immediately, North Korean ships will be banned from Japanese ports, along with imports from the DPRK. While Japan is not North Korea's largest trading partner, the sanctions will have an impact on Kim Jong-il's regime, which has long used Japan as a transshipment point for drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and other illegal activities. The new sanctions will go into effect on Saturday.

With Japanese ports off limits, Kim will find it more difficult to transfer illlegal drugs and counterfeit money into the world market. It will also limit his ability to extract profits from various Chosen Soren enterprises in Japan. With the Japan's recent crackdown on North Korean financial activities, Pyongyang found it easier to move money on vessels sailing from Japan, instead of sending the funds through electronic transfer. The trade ban won't completely eliminate the flow of money from Japan to North Korea, but it will make the transfer more complex, and reduce the amount of funds moving between the two countries.

Japan's actions will also limit North Korea's espionage activities. Pyongyang has long used Japan--and the Chosen Soren--as a cover for spy operations in South Korea. North Korea agents often emigrate to Japan, obtaining the cover required for them to enter South Korea, and begin gathering intelligence information for the DPRK. ROK counter-intelligence organizations have arrested numerous North Korean agents who were working as representatives for Japanese firms, and spent time in Japan before migrating to South Korea. One such operative spent more than 30 years in the ROK before he was finally apprehended; the North Korean agent traveled freely throughout South Korea, as an employee of a Japanese cosmetics firm with ties to the Chosen Soren--and, of course, Pyongyang.

It would be helpful if Japan takes the sanctions a step further, banning all exports to North Korea--and if South Korea would follow suit. Despite centuries of animosity between the Koreans and Japanese, certain items from Japan, including high-end electronics, liquor, and gourmet food items, remain popular with the elites. The sudden non-availability of these items could increase internal pressure on Kim Jong-il's regime. However, if South Korea doesn't follow Japan's lead, Pyongyang will simply turn to its southern neighbor for these items.

Likewise, it's time for Beijing to fish or cut bait on the North Korean issue. By playing both sides of the fence for decades, Chinese efforts to "manage" the situation have (instead) produced a crisis that could easily spin out of control. Analysts have noted the China is North Korea's primary trading partner, but neglect the fact the trade between Beijing and South Korea dwarfs Chinese economic interests in the DPRK. To sustain its double-digit economic growth (and military build-up), China needs access to east Asian and North American markets, and can ill-afford to let North Korea upset the apple cart. The moment of reckoning is at hand for Beijing, and a continuation of past policies is simply not feasible. Still, China is (so far) refusing to back tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, at the risk of triggering a massive regional arms race--with an increased U.S. military presence--that Beijing can ill-afford.

As for the North Koreans, they have responded with typical bluster, blaming the United States and threatening to conduct more nuclear tests. To its credit, the Bush Administration has consistently refused to take the bait, sticking with the six-party process and gaining needed assistance from its regional partners. Pyongyang will likely attempt more saber-rattling in the days to come, and possibly escalate the situation, through additional underground tests, or the possible targeting of U.S. or ROK military assets. During the coming days, we could possibly see an attempted intercept or shootdown of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan; an SA-5 "potshot" at a U-2 orbiting south of the DMZ, a naval engagement along the Northern Limit Line, or even an extended firefight across the de-militarized zone. U.S. and ROK forces are prepared for these contingencies, and should not be surprised by any provocative acts from North Korea.

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