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Disarming North Korea
Abstract: Conventional political wisdom is there are no good options to prevent a nuclear North Korea. This fatalism is unwarranted because there is a cultural solution; Pyongyang elites—who keep the Kim regime in power—can be convinced they will benefit more in a united nuclear-free Korea. Evidence also suggests the Kim regime might fail without Chinese trade and aid and that the United States has leverage to compel China to pressure these elites to force Kim to acquiesce. With these objectives, I introduce a two-part cultural and economic incentive model designed as a platform to facilitate public-private and Korea-US-China cooperation to disarm North Korea.
KEYWORDS: Reunification Investment Fund, geoeconomic approaches, peaceful acquiescence, incentive model, strategic cooperation, ubiquitous benefits
Foreign Policy editor and Beltway insider David Rothkopf complains about “dumb-downed smart people” in Washington, and claims there is an “institutionalized aversion to creativity” (2014, 16). This frailty is compounded by the fact that when crises emerge everybody seems to become a North Korea expert creating a media-assisted echo chamber. Indeed, conventional US North Korea policy remains stuck in the muck and mire of Cold War causation, without nuance, imagination, or reasonably substantiated expectations of positive-sum outcomes. The often-repeated fatalistic diplomatic doctrine is: “There are no good options.” This can and must change.
The succession of nuclear tests and missile launches suggest that sometime during the Trump presidency North Korea will be able to deliver a nuclear-tipped ICBM to the continental United States (Schilling, Lewis, and Schmerler 2015). Past US presidents have tried to draw a red line—claiming they would not allow a nuclear North Korea—but none has succeeded in undermining this danger or in dissuading China from supporting the Kim regime. After eight years of strategic patience there is consensus something must be done in a hurry and that China must be compelled to cooperate (Goldstein 2016, 82-100). East Asia analyst Jonathan Pollack (2016) observes: “By sharpening the choices confronting Beijing, Washington shows it believes that equivocation or indecision by China is no longer acceptable.”
As aircraft carriers and US battle groups roam Korean waters, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un must feel uneasy about an unconventional US president with a conservative populist mandate, as Donald Trump has made China’s trade surplus a political issue, and as Beijing quietly continues to prop up a belligerent regime in Pyongyang that is developing nuclear weapons it threatens to use against the United States. In addition to indirectly supporting this unholy alliance, Americans are reaching a logical conclusion that buying Chinese manufactured products is essentially paying for their own unemployment and the modernization of the Chinese military that threatens US security interests and may one day be used to kill their sons and daughters.
Some analysts contend China has little influence over North Korea and the US must do more to encourage negotiations with the Kim regime or learn to accept it as a nuclear power, which may include accepting nuclear proliferation in East Asia and the probable export of nuclear materials and technology to other parts of the world. For a variety of reasons discussed below, I am skeptical of trust-building engagement or other appeasing approaches in North Korea’s case, and oppose allowing a fragile authoritarian regime—in a country with the GDP of Togo—the capacity to kill millions of Americans from half-way around the world at the push of a button.
A growing number of analysts also claim a soft US policy toward China has failed (Harding 2015, 95-122). Princeton scholar and former US national security advisor Aaron Friedberg asserts: “China is not an ally, nor is it a trusted friend…[it] has interests and objectives that are at times in direct opposition to America’s” (2011, 265). With millions of manufacturing jobs lost to alleged unfair trade practices and North Korea in the final stages of developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM, Washington may soon seek a grand bargain with Beijing to rebalance US-China trade and denuclearize North Korea.
As the enduring and preponderant economic and military power in the world, the United States has considerable ability to achieve both objectives. Despite the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiatives, and the China Dream of restoring the spender of its Golden Age, as a debt-ridden, export and energy dependent, low-middle income rising power—facing the middle-income trap—with an inferior blue-water Navy and without allies, Beijing has incentive to compromise and cooperate with Washington. And with one-fifth of the worlds population and a growing consumer market, as an emissary of US business interests, Washington has incentive to compromise and cooperate with Beijing. However, as China is a proud and self-confident rising power, avoiding unnecessary conflict may require sophisticated face-saving policies and unconventional means of deploying US power.
In a book Henry Kissinger hopes will convince policymakers to reassess geoeconomic tools, in War by Other Means Ambassador Robert Blackwell and Jennifer Harris (2016) critique conventional US foreign policy and present a prescient prescription for what must change. Blackwell and Harris contend the Vietnam War pushed geoeconomics off the policy stage, and then as now, the US too often reaches for the gun instead of the purse. Citing ideas introduced by the influential Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum (2015), Blackwell and Harris assert: “Understanding geoeconomics requires appreciating deeply embedded differences in the operating assumptions of geopolitics and economics. The logic of geopolitics is traditionally zero-sum, while the logic of economics is traditionally positive-sum” (2015, 24). They conclude US policy should de-emphasize zero-sum conventional power politics in favor of positive-sum geoeconomic statecraft.
To achieve this objective, I designed a two-part incentive plan to peacefully denuclearize North Korea while creating economic and security benefits for all concerned stakeholders. Fortunately, there are new leverage points today for solving disputes that were unavailable just a few years ago. Instead of another round of contingent engagement, followed by a new display of lethal weaponry and more restrictive sanctions, this reward-based model for conflict resolution does not depend on impersonal trust between leaders or states, but instead relies on the motive force of culture, as expressed in the incentive-directed personal preferences of individuals.
Therefore, in this essay I will introduce a plausible pragmatic platform for positive-sum private and multilateral cooperation that expands the set of options at a time when it is painfully obvious conventional strategies derived from institutional think tanks and policy professionals are not working, and sentiment is growing for more drastic action.
However, since it will be difficult to rein in North Korea’s nuclear missile program without Chinese cooperation or military force, before introducing this proactive geoeconomic approach, let us review evidence that supports the prevailing opinion that China could do more to stop North Korea, possible reasons for its reluctance, and consider incentives that might lead to its cooperation.
PART ONE: CHINESE COOPERATION
China’s Reluctance to Stop North Korea
To observe China’s current reluctance to pressure North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions is not to contend it will always be unwilling. Like all great sovereign nations, China has a range of evolving geopolitical interests and perspectives and internal political factions competing to have their way. Despite Historic mistrust, current resource predation, and ethnic-nationalist prejudice, conventional wisdom is North Korea and China are involved in a “mutual hostage” (Cha 2012, 344) relationship and that China prefers a divided peninsula in order to preserve a fraternally allied communist authoritarian state as a buffer between itself and the US allied (and occupied) democratic South Korea.
While perhaps valid concerns for an insecure Chinese generation, and although frequently referenced by US policy professionals, there is little rationale for this today. In addition to the borderless diffusion of news and information via satellite/digital communications and the Internet, with over two million men in boots and 2,000 fighter aircraft, no modern army would dare push toward Beijing over land through Korea, and after unification, anti-ballistic missile systems (THADD) and a large US military presence will become unnecessary. Let me suggest a more sinister reason that has largely escaped critical analysis.
Since the chorus of public disapproval in China following North Korea’s February 2013 nuclear test (Dengli 2013; Tao 2013; Yuwen 2013), the prevailing consensus is that Beijing has distanced itself from Pyongyang. It is often cited that Chinese President Xi has yet to meet with Kim Jong-un and has warned him to stop provocations. However, while there is circumstantial evidence for estrangement, this does not discredit an alternative hypothesis that hardliners are feigning displeasure to disguise their real intent. Analysts who presume acrimony fail to identify the silent surrogate role North Korea plays in promoting Communist China’s historical anti-imperialist anti-Western foreign policy through the transfer of technical military knowledge and advanced weaponry.
This chain of strategic relationships destabilizes the Middle East, challenges US interests in the Persian Gulf, and defies the post-World War II liberal international order (Auslin 2017). China policy expert Denny Roy points out that an increasingly dangerous “anti-U.S. Iran diverts U.S. resources away from East Asia and attention away from China” (2013, 174). An incomplete flow chart of the chain of interlinking proxy relationships (including Russia’s role) and weapon transfers between anti-Western authoritarian states and non-state terrorist/resistance groups in the Greater Middle East is represented in the figure below:
Anti-Western International Weapons Supply Chain
(Source: Iverson 2017, 147)
A history of Chinese weapon exports to the Greater Middle East and current North Korean weapon exports through Chinese ports to Syria and Iran (arming Hezbollah and Hamas) suggests collusion (Garver 2016, 2006). According to newly released records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, China began exporting nuclear materials to the Middle East in the early 1980s. Declassified CIA reports reveal that Chinese entities have been key suppliers of nuclear and missile-related technology to Pakistan and missile-related technology to Iran (National Security Archive 2013; also see Kerr and Nikitin 2013; and Gill 1998, 55-70).
According to the head Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, in 1982 a Pakistani military C-130 left the western Chinese city of Urumqi with enough weapons-grade uranium for two atomic bombs. According to Khan, the uranium cargo came with a blueprint for a simple weapon that China had already tested, supplying a virtual do-it-yourself kit that speeded up Pakistan’s bomb effort (Smith and Warrick 2009). However, these overt Chinese operations soon subsided as Beijing began to prioritize economic growth over anti-imperialist adventures. China policy expert Bates Gill (1998) asserts that Beijing’s gradual acceptance of global arms control and nonproliferation norms—beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s—was motivated by its desire to integrate with the international community. Since then, China has used alternative means and surrogates to achieve its anti-Western geopolitical objectives.
Evidence suggests that in return for economic support North Korea functions as a Chinese surrogate. In 2011 a UN Panel of Experts report was blocked by Beijing in the Security Council because it contained incriminating details that Iran and North Korea exchanged missile technology using Air Koryo and Iran Air, involving transshipment through China (Kan 2014). Before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran was finalized in 2015, Beijing had a long history of opposing UN sanctions against Tehran, vetoing sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime, and stymieing possible P5+1 action in Syria (Kemende 2010, 99-114). Beginning in 2009 the Obama Administration imposed sanctions 16 different times on Chinese entities for weapons proliferation, including after 445 North Korean-made graphite cylinders used in ballistic missiles were seized in 2012 from a Chinese cargo ship bound for Syria. In February 2014 the US Defense Intelligence Agency Director testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Syria’s liquid-propellant missile program depends on equipment and assistance primarily from North Korea (Flynn 2013, 24-25).
In addition to missile proliferation, the Kim regime has exported nuclear materials and knowledge to the Middle East. Thomas Plant and Ben Rhode—former researchers at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—submit that North Korea “sold technology used in nuclear-weapon development on at least two occasions: the slightly enriched uranium hexafluoride to Libya (along with un-enriched uranium hexafluoride feed-stock), and reactor technology and perhaps other material and infrastructure to Syria” (2013, 66). According to senior US intelligence officials and a high-level Iranian informant, North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor in the Syro-Arabian Desert designed to produce nuclear weapons.
Information from satellite imagery released by the US government revealed the al-Kibār reactor was modeled on a North Korean gas-graphite reactor design—which uses a large core of natural uranium metal fuel—and was about the size and shape of the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea. After Mossad penetrated these plans, Israeli jets bombed it in September 2007 (Follath and Stark 2009). Harvard national security expert Graham Allison asks and answers: “Does Pyongyang believe that North Korea could get away with selling a nuclear weapon to Al Qaeda or Iran? The fact that North Korea sold Syria a reactor that is thousands of times larger than a bomb suggests that it does” (2014, ix).
These intelligence discoveries, plus Beijing’s lackluster response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, its failure to eliminate munitions transshipments, and feeble enforcement of UN sanctions suggest that China’s support for North Korea may not be a benign legacy of the Cold War, but is part of a larger geopolitical strategy (Iverson 2013). After secretly establishing Pakistan as a nuclear power on one flank, China may prefer a surrogate ally with nuclear muscle on its other flank. While it may seem unthinkable today, China is a long term strategist, and if at any time in the future Beijing chose to challenge the US in the Pacific theater, it would certainly be of value to have a conventional and nuclear missile capable ally able to threaten US military bases in the region.
While hardliner elements in Beijing may currently lack resolve to stop North Korea, evidence China could suppress or even prevent its nuclear proliferation would create a strategic opening for geoeconomic diplomacy that US leaders have an obligation to pursue.
Can China Stop North Korea?
Taking the CCP at its word that it disapproves of North Korea’s nuclear missile program, most institutional analysts also presume Beijing cannot stop it. This is an unfounded and dangerous assumption since this lets China off the hook when evidence of substantial economic leverage suggests otherwise. According to a US Congressional research report, in addition to over one billion dollars in direct aid, Beijing purchases 90 percent of North Korea’s commercial exports, provides 80 percent of its consumer goods, 90 percent of its energy, over $100 million in UN banned luxury goods, and enough food to feed over a million people per year (Manyin and Nikitin 2012). However, the most profit is derived from the trade itself, which despite Beijing’s alleged discomfort with Pyongyang’s provocations, has quietly increased four fold since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, as shown in the graph below.
China-North Korea Trade 2006-2015
Source: Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA)
Although there are recent indications—at least on paper—of a slowdown in trade—undoubtedly precipitated by greater US pressure to enforce UN sanctions—this dramatic increase in trade since 2006 is undeniable material evidence of China’s support for North Korea and suggests tacit approval of its Middle East policies and nuclear weapons program. As Beijing props up the Kim regime without bringing attention to itself—or anyone losing face—it may undervalue exports by at least one-third—a strategic discount—while the bulk of North Korea’s exports of mineral products and textiles—utilizing work camp labor—may return a 90 percent profit. The structural trade deficit (highlighted above) with China is effectively foreign aid since it is inconceivable it will ever be paid back, as with the $10 billion Russian debt that was forgiven in 2012 after decades in arrears. Given these assumptions, from available data Chinese trade and aid is responsible for direct and in kind fungible profits that paid for more than three-quarters of North Korea’s $6 billion 2015 military budget.
Thus, Beijing’s words do not comport with its actions, and the media and policy analysts should see this and respond accordingly. Despite benign policy pronouncements, there is no question that China is underwriting the stability of the Kim regime and paying for a large portion of its nuclear weapons program. Indeed, if China were to abide by UN sanctions and suspend support—even if food aid was maintained at humanitarian levels—without luxury goods for elites, oil for the military, and essential commodities for its people, it is improbable the Kim regime would last long. American Enterprise Institute economist Nicholas Eberstadt (2015, 7) describes North Korea as more dependent on aid than the poorest countries in Africa. According to the highest ranking émigré and a senior member of the Korean Workers Party: “Without Chinese capital goods, it would be impossible for the North Korean government to operate, and ordinary people would not be able to carry on with their daily lives” (Chosunilbo 2014).
Under such conditions, leaders of surrogate states need not like their overseers in order to do as expected when money—or its equivalent—is on the table, especially if they have no one else to turn to in times of trouble and when these activities are entirely consistent with their domestic political and geopolitical designs. The degree of animus or friendship between Beijing and the Kim regime is immaterial to this client-proxy relationship, which would dissolve if North Korea’s nuclear missile program, and missile exports and nuclear technology transfers to the Middle East were unacceptable to China’s larger strategic objectives. Indeed, Beijing would surely withhold support if Pyongyang started selling weapons to Xinjiang rebels or to the Dali Lama.
Breaking With the Past
Material analysis suggests Beijing has existential leverage over the Kim regime and that the effectiveness of UN sanctions is seriously compromised while China underwrites Kim’s survival. However, enlisting China’s cooperation may not be as prohibitive as observers might think. Dartmouth political scientist Jennifer Lind (2013) points out that when China and North Korea originally formed an alliance both countries were weak, resentful, isolated, and the target of Cold War containment by the US and its allies. China has since moved beyond this state of affairs, has joined multilateral institutions, and now depends on the international system as the world’s largest trader. Although its North Korea policy remains anchored to the past, influential factions in the PLA and the CCP regard the Kim regime as a threat to regional stability (Jun 2013).
In a September 2014 article, published in the China state journal, World Knowledge, Renmin university international relations expert Li Wei describes North Korea as inappropriate as a “strategic ally” because it does not conform to the general criteria of a “strategic hub country” that supports Chinese political, diplomatic and security goals (Dong-a Ilbo 2014). Party elites are uneasy about an unruly state on their border that may provoke a US military response or prompt regional nuclear proliferation (Samuels and Schoff 2013, 259). These security concerns, plus President Trump’s fair trade alarm, put Beijing in double jeopardy. Indeed, Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “China needs years and more likely decades of relative stability in the region so that it can continue to address its many domestic challenges. North Korea is a threat to such stability” (2014).
Although hardliner traditionalists still prevail over a new generation of policy pragmatists, their authority is not unlimited, and Beijing is not immune to its own populist pressures. China may not renew this relationship indefinitely, as it is forced to accept more important concerns that loom on the horizon. Since the Mao era, Chinese leaders have exhibited an admirable faculty for reform in response to changing real-world circumstances. Cheng Li (2016, 356-357)—an expert on Chinese elites—argues President Xi’s deliberately ambiguous stances and strategies has struck a delicate balance between constituencies and socioeconomic forces that allows Xi the flexibility to adapt in the face of evolving geopolitical and geoeconomic challenges. As relations between the US and North Korea will likely deteriorate and the geopolitical calculus changes, the geoeconomic incentive model outlined below may be Beijing’s golden opportunity to resolve this eroding security dilemma before it loses control over the situation.
Sixty-five years ago when its frontline value was beyond reproach, North Korea was a protected pawn in the chess match of great power rivalry. However, now that it has invited danger into the region for China, it may be sacrificed for a larger strategic vision. There is danger that since the PLA is the dominant ground force in Asia, China’s notion of strategic reassurance may include territorial sequestration in Korea and in the littoral waters of the Asia-Pacific (see Bennett 2013, 89-90; and Iverson 2017, 121-134).
As Trump conducts a less institutionally constrained and more personal approach to foreign affairs he may abandon conventional Cold War geopolitics and stress a more accountable geoeconomic statecraft. And why not, for more than twenty years all else has failed. Strategic trade and security deals can be shaped and reshaped in this enlarged negotiating environment. In a world of massive capital flows, unequal abundance, structural stagnation, and global satellite communication, where expanding trade and creating jobs is as important to political survival as free access to well endowed consumer markets, it is likely that over the course of the twenty-first century a more pragmatic modernization of foreign policy will involve a greater emphasis on geoeconomic statecraft to solve political disputes and promote and defend national interests.
As we gradually transition into a world of multiple polarities, in a bold new finance and technology-driven, democratically and demographically expanding interdependent globalized system, cooperative checkbook diplomacy must replace competitive gunboat diplomacy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction must cease altogether. Nothing would reduce imperial rivalry and contribute more to world peace and international security than resolving the Korea nuclear dilemma with empathy, strategic cooperation, and financial reassurance.
The following plan to disarm North Korea was designed as a bridge to this future.
PART TWO: KOREAN COOPERATION
It is my hope with vastly more materialist variables on the table in the early twenty-first century that political leaders might transcend the more traditional and vindictive eye-for-an-eye approach and turn the other cheek. Policymakers would be wise to recognize that the application of pain through punishing sanctions and negative coercion is sometimes much less effective in gaining compliance than positive reinforcements. Like good parents, policymakers and heads-of-state must be able to discern when it is wise to punish and when it is better to use incentives. As David Baldwin (1971; 1979; 1985; 1998) advocated almost a half-century ago, there is need for a more balanced approach to the application of power.
What if North Korea could be disarmed without inciting fear or administering punishment, but instead, by promising personal rewards? Unconventional approaches—such as the one I am about to introduce—often seem strange and untenable until they are fully understood. Therefore, I ask readers to be open-minded—to be prepared to think outside the box—and to suspend judgment until they fully comprehend the interacting details of this cultural and economic approach.
This incentive model for disarming North Korea presumes that if the causes of conflict and war can sometimes be reduced to competition over money and control over the land, people, and the resources that produce it, then it might be possible to pay in advance to prevent it (Iverson 2013). My central assumption is that in social settings, where almost everything is for sale, there must be some level of security assurance and personal financial incentive that will convince top Pyongyang governing elites to impose insurmountable domestic pressure on the Kim regime to acquiesce to South Korean political control. Indeed, after more than a quarter century of failed conventional policies, an economic strategy that injects the persuasive power of personalized money into the diplomatic process may be necessary in order to overcome institutional inertia, ideological intransigence, and path dependencies that too often terminate in conflict.
Therefore, imagine you control a multi-billion dollar capital fund and North Korea is a poorly run and underperforming corporation controlled by an incompetent board of directors—the Kim family and a small number of ultra-elites—who will not negotiate a deal. In this regressive situation it is logical to offer shareholders—political/military elites, government managers/bureaucrats, and the general population—a higher price for their shares to convince them to overrule their board of directors—A FRIENDLY CORPORATE BUYOUT.
For this model to succeed, Pyongyang elites must feel assured they would enjoy a safe and prosperous future. Therefore, I propose a privately endowed fund that promises an appealing post-unification payout to North Korean elites to incentivize them to take action to unify Korea. After much analysis, I have arrived at what I think would be a motivating amount: the top 1,000 North Korean families will be promised between $30-$5 million each (dispensed over 7 years), 11,000 upper elites—including all generals—would get over $1 million; 50,000 lower-level political elites and military officers are promised $100,000 to $500,000. In total, 112,030 elites will receive more than $50,000 each (see Iverson 2017, 38).
Individually, this is an enormous amount of money even for elites and should create strong incentives for reunification among over 100,000 new generation elites that have assumed power since the succession of Kim Jong-un almost six years ago. It is plausible this friendly corporate takeover can be accomplished for as little as $29.4 billion—an annual $4.2 billion investment over 7 years. A summary of this elite payout is provided below:
Individual financial incentives are an affordable option in North Korea due to a small population (25 million), low per capita GDP (~$1,300), and a relatively impoverished power elite. Reports from high-ranking defectors suggest North Korean elites are ready for an alternative to their current condition. As internal insecurities mount, attractive material incentives and assurances their lives will improve after unification may tip the balance. Even Kim Jong-un may be offered personal and financial security, and be allowed to keep a portion of his fortune. Denial of complicity in palace purges and other alleged atrocities may preserve his public image; his father and the relic henchmen young Kim has already dispatched from positions of power will be scapegoats for decades of malfeasance and unconscionable human rights abuse. If preemptive back channel talks lead to an agreement, Kim might justifiably be hailed as the heroic leader who brought peace, prosperity, and unification to his people.
However, if he does not acquiesce, these financial incentives may lead to insurrection—the expectation of which will encourage this preemptive agreement. Indeed, with $20-30 million promised to each of the 210 most prominent families, it is not implausible that they might take matters into their own hands. Or a coup d’état may be sponsored by well-compensated political or military elites. In either case—violent overthrow or peaceful acquiescence—the transfer of political power to South Korea would end more than 65 years of abject tyranny and human rights abuse, would prevent nuclear proliferation in East Asia, and eliminate one flashpoint for war between an established and a rising power—the US and China.
Although unification may be achieved through elite payments alone, this Reunification Investment Fund model includes the possibility of a publically funded component that would include payments to a larger segment of the population and perhaps lead to greater pressure on the regime. For an additional $15.4 billion 500,000 Korean Workers Party members and 300,000 impoverished families in Pyongyang may be incentivized to push for reunification. This will likely inspire mass grass-roots activism. The bold arrows in the figure below represent the more essential strategic elements of this Reunification Investment Fund:
Reunification Investment Fund Financial Flow Chart
(Source: Iverson 2017, 29)
As designated by the thin arrows, the masses outside Pyongyang may also be awarded financial benefits. This would help jump-start the new economy and ensure social stability. Non-taxpayer derived investment capital may come from South Korea’s half-trillion dollar sovereign wealth and foreign reserve assets, QE, helicopter money, or from the presumptive peace dividend. Post-unification investments in infrastructure from Korean government bonds ($300 billion was recommended by the Korea Financial Services Commission in November 2014), international banks, and the B-20 (the investment arm of the G-20) may amount to more than a trillion dollars over the next decade, creating millions of productive jobs and securing the democratic transition.
Little is known about the sentiments of the Pyongyang poor, who comprise about two million people living in close quarters, just a stone’s throw from the guarded compounds of the power elite. Few have refrigerators and even fewer own washing machines; electricity and water are intermittent. They live along dirt roads in brick-and-clay huts without toilets, heat their homes with charcoal, and bathe infrequently in public cold-water showers—even in the bitter cold of winter (Lankov 2007, 93-95). Promises of food security, modern health and dental care for their children, property ownership, a regularly functioning water and energy infrastructure, high-speed international communication links, and thousands of dollars deposited into their personal bank accounts each year for seven years may spread unification fever and many may take to the streets.
However, if safe from international retribution, the Kim regime may acquiesce long before the social situation devolves into a state of general chaos and insurrection. Although Kim Jong-un receives no money, that personal safety is more precious than power would give him little choice but to accept this offer. He may be granted immunity from criminal prosecution, allowed to keep a portion of his fortune, and promised freedom to live and travel anywhere in the world. Nothing is gained by his vilification or punishment, while promising safety and security to the House of Kim may prevent bloodshed.
On the surface, these payments may seem counterintuitive, unethical, and even immoral to pay an enemy that is infamous for decades of unconscionable human rights abuse. However, upon closer analysis, almost everyone in the North Korean hierarchical pyramid of power has been replaced in recent years, and therefore this new generation of Pyongyang elites may be viewed less as perpetrators and more as innocent victim inheritors of an ignoble history. Most who will benefit are merely innocent inheritors of their fathers’ ill-begotten estate (position and power) and were not complicit in its original acquisition or in the malevolence that followed. We do not punish the descendants of slaveholders or the children of thieves and murderers. Indeed, this payment would amount to a bailout for the misdeeds of their ancestors—without moral hazard.
Although we often envision North Koreans through a media-distorted lens as goose-stepping saber-rattling soldiers and belligerent missile-launching miscreants, political scientist David Kang submits that these people “[inherited] circumstances they did not create … [and] live their lives, marry, worry about their children, go to their jobs, and try to get through the day as best they can” (2011/12, 162). They have families, grandchildren, and hopes and dreams for a peaceful and prosperous future, and over 30 percent are children endowed with the innocence of youth. Indeed, there is every indication North Korean elites are wise, rational, and pragmatic people who are amenable to compelling incentives, and will likely consent to this uniquely enriching opportunity for themselves and their families if their personal safety and wellbeing is assured.
After more than a generation of economic stagnation and fending for themselves following the dismantling of the free public food distribution system in the early 1990s, almost everyone in North Korea has abandoned Leninist ideology and is aware of and envious of South Korea’s remarkable prosperity. The steady diffusion of news and information across the semi-permeable Chinese border has changed the cognitive landscape in North Korea, as a market-motivated underground information highway has challenged the state’s meta-narrative and monopoly on information. As in the final days of the Soviet Union, the efficacy of this model is enhanced by word-of-mouth rumor currently spreading across North Korean social networks that the outside world is a better place to live (Kotz and Weir 2007; Iverson 2013). Rumors of the inordinately better life in the South have saturated cultural impressions and created a new social context for political change that has not existed before (Lankov 2013).
After decades of silent transformation the mere existence of this fund sitting in escrow ready to pay out vast sums may catalyze overwhelming support for reunification at all levels of North Korean society. The promise of $29.4 billion to elites can win a lot of hearts and minds. More than 3 million mobile phones will help spread news of this payout. North Korean elites and commoners are ready for change and this fund is a platform to unleash and manage it.
But who has the imagination, capability, and vested self-interest and incentive to fund this unconventional geoeconomic approach to peacemaking?
For a variety of reasons it is unlikely any government—especially a democratically elected one—could authorize payment of public funds to North Korean elites, no matter how justifiable. Therefore, the success of this proposal depends not on the political but on the economic realm, where private entities may do whatever they wish. Global businesses have an economic interest in maintaining global production chains and the free-flow of trade, and therefore a significant incentive to protect world peace. And North Korea is naturally and geographically endowed with enormous profit-making resources that would become available to the private sector if it were unified with South Korea. Therefore, to secure a greater prosperity, these reciprocal benefits may lead to private-public cooperation.
As displayed in the figure above, in this scenario the South Korean government would offer resources awards and private sector contracts for infrastructural improvements and portions of future markets, industries, and business enterprises worth trillions of dollars in profitable assets, including a controlling interest in telecommunications, transportation, building materials, and automotive products, ownership or licensing agreements for control over mines, seaports, and tourist attractions, and exclusive construction contracts for a gas pipeline, railroads, tar roads, energy generation, and a multitude of necessary projects.
There is an abundance of lucrative business opportunities in the hermit kingdom. North Korea ranks 10th among all nations in mineral reserves: valued at $6-10 trillion. A multi-billion dollar pipeline must be built from Russia to supply the industrial and population centers of Korea with an estimated $3 billion in natural gas per year (Harkins 2011). New railroads lines must be built; goods shipped over a Eurasian Express train would reach European markets in one-third the time it takes by ship via the Suez Canal (Ikeda 2013). Japan would likely export to Europe by train through Busan. Unification would also stimulate exports through the northernmost ice-free Pacific port in Rason, just a few miles from landlocked China and bordering the resource rich Russian Far East.
These seaports will increase in value as trans-arctic shipping advances over the course of the twenty-first century. Roads must be tarred, cars imported; only 3 percent of the roads are paved and the North has only 50 thousand private cars compared to 18 million in South Korea. Less expensive labor will be available for at least a generation, as formal sector commodity markets spring up everywhere. Tourism is another unexploited multi-billion dollar industry, where control over specific attractions may also be turned over to private enterprise in return for contributions to the fund. These safe investment vehicles will result in enormously profitable ventures with long-term returns.
In exchange for these resource awards and government assurances, business investors would be required to endow this fund to pay an annual $4.2 billion golden parachute for seven-years to North Korea political and military elites, to compensate for their loss of power and position. As noted, since it is impractical to expect democratically elected officials to agree to transfer public money to North Korean elites, these payments must come from private sources, for whom the prospect of enormous business profits make this a wise investment. And there is no risk since money is not deposited into personal bank accounts until after unification and the formal transfer of political and military power.
And as good fortune would have it, after decades of globalization profits and unprecedented QE, the world is awash in money. Business tycoons, transnational corporations, and institutional investors have surplus capital and are looking for opportunities. East Asian private equity firms hold more than $100 billion in “unspent cash” but are experiencing difficulty finding profitable investment opportunities as the global economy has lost momentum (Carew and Watts 2015). The Bank of Korea or international banks (IMF, ADB, and AIIB) may provide infrastructural investments and financial guarantees—as the lender(s) of last resort—since there is little risk a unified Korean economy will not prosper, and the BOK will profit the most.
International business, banking, and multilateral underwriting, with G-20 leadership, will impart confidence by indemnifying this fund with broad assurances from the global community. In today’s multilayered global balance of power, private interests often serve as a unifying force in the competitive nation-state system of world governance. This unification plan is predicated on the simple assumption that geopolitics may sometimes be more effectively managed through positive-sum geoeconomic incentives acting on the personal and cultural level.
Analysts agree Beijing has been more assertive and confrontational since the Global Financial Crises, after which former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson observed a “newfound sense of confidence, verging on triumphalism, among many of the Chinese I saw and spoke with” (2015, 369). Princeton scholar and former deputy assistant secretary of State Thomas Christensen refers to China’s more aggressive geopolitical behavior as “offensive diplomacy” (2015).
However, it is unlikely this irrational exuberance can be sustained because China’s trade surplus with the West and its economic support for North Korea contain fatal contradictions it cannot yet resolve with raw power. Indeed, the CCP has made China vulnerable to financial crisis after years of inefficient domestic economic policies and by massively subsidizing its geostrategic objectives. After a decade of spending beyond its means, and now with a stagnating global economy and reduced exports, China is on the brink of a serious debt crisis and cannot afford diplomatic or trade complications with the US—that is responsible for 10-15 percent of its GDP and tens-of-millions of steady export related jobs.
The CCP must weigh the cost of zero-sum security competition and perhaps even conflict against and benefits of a new partnership and potential strategic condominium with the US. Graham Allison contends: “If leaders in Beijing and Washington keep doing what they have done for the past decade, the US and China will almost certainly wind up at war” (2017, xvii). Alternatively, this fund offers Beijing a face-saving opportunity to rethink its policies and form a collaborative alliance with the US based on the principles of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
If this fund were to gain critical momentum, China may have little choice but to cooperate, since its longer-term alternatives are foreboding. In one scenario, if security competition led to conflict and a western trade embargo, along with losing 40 percent of its foreign exports, already heavily leveraged Chinese corporations would fail, property markets—that hold its largest store of household wealth—would collapse, and $2.2 trillion in direct foreign investment would evaporate, as an unsuccessful stampede to withdraw a portion of the $15 trillion in household and consumer deposits from under-capitalized state banks would result in financial meltdown and panic across China. Even China’s considerable foreign reserves could not prevent this implosion, as its 35-year economic miracle would come to a screeching halt. Geopolitical specialist Peter Zeihan submits, “Should American trade access be revoked it would be as if China suffered from an equivalent of three American Great Recessions all at once” (2014, 314).
While there may be political instability in China, citizens in America would rally behind the President. The US would mobilize its military from around the globe, but after decades of China modernizing its near-shore military capabilities, it may be advisable to stand back behind of the First Island Chain and watch as events unfold on the mainland. The US would be less affected than one might expect after exaggerated reports of Chimerican interdependence. It may suffer a temporary stock market collapse, inflation at Walmart, and shortages of select electronic and machine products, but enjoy trade balance and employment gains as commodities once shipped from China are manufactured at home or near-shored.
Few realize the US economy is more self-contained and less integrated in the Bretton Woods global system than almost all other nations. The US is the world’s largest and most efficient manufacturer, producing 75 percent of what it consumes and all of its energy needs. Two-thirds of foreign trade is in the Western Hemisphere, and since the shale revolution gifted the United States with energy independence, its imports from the Eastern Hemisphere could potentially be less than 5 percent per year. Galina Hale and Bart Hobijn at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco calculated that goods and services from China account for only 3 percent of US personal consumption expenditures (2011). David Dollar at Brookings notes: “Only 1 percent of the stock of US direct investment abroad is in China” (2015).
The economic contraction might be tantamount to the Global Financial Crisis, and damage to international investors and exposed corporations will be severe, but temporary. Americans and Europeans have healthy public support systems and can adjust to slow-downs, shortages, and price hikes, while most Chinese citizens cannot survive without a steady income, and would turn against a government that cannot provide then with one. After decades of rapid urbanization, massive unemployment compounded by a weak social safety net may redirect the exuberant energies of a surging lower- and middle-class nationalism against the CCP, that is already perceived as irreparably corrupt after decades of official graft and land grabbing. A reckless foreign policy that impacts livelihoods might be the last straw.
Although not a conventional democracy, the CCP is constrained from taking actions people recognize as damaging to the country; grave malfeasance would lead to inexorable demands for its ouster, and the end result is far from certain. If social unrest threatens the Party, ultimately it is the military that will decide its fate. Although the Central Military Commission has rescued the Party in the past, its leaders may second-guess the Party’s Mandate from Heaven if China’s economic foundations crumbled and mass social chaos ensued. Yale political scientist John Bryan Starr argues that the credibility of the PLA exceeds that of the CCP, and mindful of the backlash from the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, “it will be patriotism rather than loyalty to the party that brings the military into the political arena [again]” (2010, 362).
This is the great Confucian paradox of Chinese aggressiveness and precocious military modernization. Nevertheless, the CCP is no more suicidal than the Kim regime and will adapt to new geopolitical and geoeconomic realities with strategic cooperation if it has no better option. To countermand these regressive security impulses we need new institutional platforms that promote peace and conciliation, and that elicit opportunities for compromise and cooperation. This fund facilitates these collaborative stabilizing objectives.
The status of the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship will reflect how President Xi negotiates the China Dream and how President Trump applies his America First foreign policy. Trump has appointed a balanced staff of senior advisors, with the cautious pragmatism of Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster, Kelly, and Dunford on the military side, and with Mnuchin and Cohn moderating the hardliner trade approaches of Ross, Lighthizer, and Navarro. But despite sound advice, warm handshakes, and glittering smiles in Palm Beach, there may soon be a day of reckoning, when the office becomes larger than the men who inhabit it, and the art of the deal will be decided not over pleasantries and chocolate cake, but by hardball negotiation and the prerogatives of power.
The Trump administration has made it clear that America’s patience has run out and that it will not allow the Kim regime the ability to terrorize the United States with nuclear weapons. With the horror of 9/11 indelibly etched into American minds, many believe a surgical military strike now may have significantly lower risks than a nuclear-ICBM endangered future. Despite a pundit-orchestrated chorus of reservations, new polls suggest increased fear and support for US interdiction. New provocations seem to beg for preventive US kinetic action. As US military personnel increasingly populate the public airways, President Trump warns of “fire and fury” and that the US is “locked and loaded” and a major television network anchor casually uses the phrase “incinerate North Korea” as an option, it is clear that all options are on the table.
Although Trump promised to inform South Korea President Moon of an impending US attack, he may act unilaterally and unpredictably—as in the April 7 cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield. Since conventional geopolitics has failed to stop North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction, the geoeconomic approach outlined in this essay should be considered in lieu of another preventive missile strike. Indeed, the unorthodox plan proposed here might be the only realistically achievable path to denuclearize Korea at this late stage without resorting to a kinetic solution.
If as realist scholars submit, that vulnerability to threats is the main driver of Chinese foreign policy, then Beijing should seek to avoid the prospects of US military action on its doorstep, a nuclear-armed Japan (Nathan and Scobell 2012), or a geoeconomic challenge to its legitimacy. This plan gives the CCP room to back away and save face. As Henry Kissinger optimistically asserted in his August 2017 interview with Charlie Rose, mutual security concerns may compel reciprocal compromise and cooperation. China may facilitate Korean unification by suspending all support for Pyongyang while the US would agree to withdraw its military from mainland Korea pending unification and the removal of nuclear weapons. Both nations may diplomatically promote and financially support this fund because it advances their security.
If popularized in the media, business leaders and heads of state may see this is a workable plan with ubiquitous benefits to everyone with something at stake in the region. The US would get the dissolution of a grave nuclear threat, an end to the possible transfer of nuclear materials and technology to terrorists or rogue states, and a chance to reassess its geopolitical interests in a much less threatening Asia-Pacific; Japan gets safety from missile attack and weapons of mass destruction, along with large new labor, export, and investment markets; Russia gets secure rail and energy profits, and year-round passage to Pacific shipping; China gets a reprieve from the possibility of regional nuclear proliferation, free-market access to Korean minerals and ports, cooperation in developing its northeast provinces, the removal of US troops from mainland Korea and an easing of great power rivalry; and South Korea gets permanent peace, trillions of dollars in mineral resources, energy security and diversification, several valuable Pacific ports, rail connection to China and continental Europe, 50 percent more people, 120 percent more territory, and according to a Goldman Sachs study, development synergies that may propel its GNP past France, Germany, and Japan in just one generation (Kwon 2009, 12).
From the central tenets of this essay, it is clear we must move beyond the unimaginative conventional Cold War era policies of dumb-downed smart people in Washington, Beijing, and Seoul—and their institutionalized aversion to thinking creatively outside the box—to a place where good options do exist. We must see the bigger picture, in which over the course of the next generation another two billion people will plug into the Internet and join in the global conversation. If allied in efforts to procure a greater global unity, increase technological innovation, protect our fragile planet, capture the unlimited energy of the sun, and create jobs and open new markets and possibilities around the world for this expanding and modernizing population, the United States and China—with Russia and Japan—could forge new positive-sum relationships based on economic opportunity, and partner to unify Korea and extend the Long Peace deep into the twenty-first century.
Foreign policy must be reassessed and redesigned to account for the social and political leveling impact of the modernizing forces of new technology. The information revolution has created new aspirations for a better life in North Korea and the pre-conditions for political transformation that have not existed before. As the Kim regime denies its citizens a prosperous future, power elites, government officials, and average people are reaching a threshold of disaffection. However, due to the coercive security state, until a reason for hope comes along, people must wait for an angel to appear. This fund is that angel, since it provides a path to a better life, and creates an impetus for organizing hopes and dreams, and channeling thoughts and emotions into collective action.
Although nuclear proliferation and the trajectory of geopolitics seem unstoppable, we need not continue down this road leading into the abyss. Instead we may think outside the box and create novel solutions to unique contemporary geopolitical problems. Realizing the potential of this fund will require the inspired vision of business and political leaders who can bring out the best in all of us; those who perceive the big picture and understand that the ideas that move humanity forward are often initially considered crazy, disruptive, or impossible; leaders who can show us what we should want, while employing positive-sum geoeconomic incentives to get us there. If the smart power dynamics of this plan were popularized in the media and discussed on a world stage, the private sector and heads of state might be compelled to support this fund, and unification could occur within months, and leaders in China, Korea, and the United States could share the Nobel stage.
To get from here to there we must transcend zero-sum geopolitics with a strategic plan that at least has some chance of positive-sum success. This Reunification Investment Fund is such a plan. As Ambassador Blackwell and Jennifer Harris astutely assert: “U.S. foreign policy must be reshaped to address a world in which economic concerns often outweigh traditional military imperatives and where geoeconomic approaches are often the surest means of advancing American national interests” (2016, 226). Wise leaders of the twenty-first century must create new opportunities and consider cooperative platforms for showing people what they should want. Indeed, from time immemorial, reason and creativity has helped humans overcome nature; now in this nuclear age we must innovate in order to save us from ourselves.
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