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North Korea under Tightening Sanctions
North Korea under Tightening Sanctions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
Briefing 101 / Asia

North Korea under Tightening Sanctions

Outwardly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) appears stable. However, the country has been shaken by constricting international sanctions, extremely poor policy choices, and several internal challenges that have the potential to trigger instability.


Outwardly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) appears stable. However, the country has been shaken by constricting international sanctions, extremely poor policy choices, and several internal challenges that have the potential to trigger instability. International sanctions have reduced foreign exchange earnings, while humanitarian assistance, which feeds millions of North Koreans, has declined due to political factors and donor fatigue. In addition to sanctions, Pyongyang has been dealing with the internal pressures of a disastrous currency reform as well as a chronic and deteriorating food security problem. The aggregate pressure is already taking a toll on North Korea’s human security and could have a number of unanticipated consequences for regional and international security.

Some analysts and policymakers believe international sanctions have pressured North Korea to seek a face-saving return to the Six-Party Talks and better inter-Korean ties. Although Pyongyang’s opaque policymaking process makes it nearly impossible to understand regime motivations, the pressures of cascading and overlapping “mini crises” are unmistakable just as the country has had to face difficult succession issues. However, the DPRK has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive under pressure. Any of the current challenges – as singular problems – should be manageable. The state security apparatus and the barriers to collective action make a “revolution from below” virtually impossible. But despite the loyalty of elites in the party and the military, a sudden split in the leadership, although unlikely, is not out of the question. Signs of any fissures would not be observable from the outside until a power struggle, a coup d’état, collapse or similar crisis was already unfolding.

The first half of 2009 was marked by bellicose and defiant posturing from the North, but in the latter half of the year, Pyongyang began to express a desire to improve ties with the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and the U.S. Frequent shuttle diplomacy has led to speculation that the Six-Party Talks could reconvene soon and that an inter-Korean summit could be held in 2010 or 2011. On the other hand, the [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA) has been conducting a winter exercise that is expected to last until late March. The KPA has issued several provocative statements and in late January 2010 fired live artillery rounds towards South Korean islands off the west coast. The shells landed in the sea in the vicinity of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the western sea boundary that Pyongyang does not recognise. Nevertheless, despite KPA rhetoric, there have been no unusual troop movements or mobilisations.

Human security has not been at the top of the North East Asian security agenda given the prominence of traditional security issues, historical legacies, and strong sovereignty norms. It is generally defined along two dimensions: freedom from want; and freedom from fear. Throughout most of East Asia, even undemocratic countries have sustained relatively strong economic growth for long periods; living standards have thus improved in many countries that have experienced little or no progress in expansion of civil liberties and human rights. In contrast, North Korea’s human security has been a long-term crisis. Human rights abuses and economic deprivation have been widely documented, but the international community has no effective policy instruments to produce improvements. The recent tightening of economic sanctions, compounded with domestic problems, is exacerbating the DPRK human security tragedy. This does not mean the international community is responsible for North Korea’s current plight, of course: the DPRK government itself holds the key to easing the human security crisis.

The Korean peninsula has lived with the threat of war for over half a century. Mutual deterrence is robust, but inadvertent escalation or miscalculation is always possible. The balance of power has shifted against Pyongyang, and the DPRK leadership is not likely to start a war it knows it would lose. However, the leadership’s motivation to survive could result in more dangerous proliferation activities as sources of foreign exchange – both legitimate and illegitimate – disappear. Kim Jong-il’s political machine requires hard currency to operate, and there are several signs that the regime is increasingly desperate to earn it.

Seoul/Brussels, 15 March 2010

Commentary / Asia

DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK

On 8 November 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller into the custody of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), for a return flight to the United States. Bae had been detained for two years after being convicted by a DPRK court for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Bae, a Christian missionary, was suspected of having proselytised against the regime, calling for a “religious coup d’état”. Miller was arrested in April 2014 and convicted in September 2014, also for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Miller reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and asked for political asylum.

Some people expressed surprise at the sudden release of Bae and Miller. But Jeffrey Fowle, another detained American citizen, was released in late October. Fowle had been arrested for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at the Ch’ŏngjin Seamen’s Club, a restaurant and bar for foreign sailors (and North Koreans with cash). Clearly, the detention of the Americans no longer served the purposes of the regime, but Pyongyang apparently requested a visit by a high-level U.S. government official before agreeing to their release. The Obama administration would have been sensitive about sending a high-level official because of possible criticism at home and because Pyongyang could manipulate the visit for propaganda purposes. The administration pointed out that DNI James Clapper was selected for the mission to emphasise that the visit was not to include broader diplomatic discussions.

Some analysts have speculated that Pyongyang decided to release the Americans because the regime is worried about international criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record. The UN General Assembly is preparing to vote on a draft resolution that could include a recommendation for the referral of senior DPRK officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The DPRK’s economic dependence on China could also help explain Pyongyang’s recent international outreach and so-called “charm offensive”.

While the DPRK certainly is motivated to deflect international criticism of its sorry human rights record and to diversify its international partners, the impact of Clapper’s visit on the DPRK’s internal affairs should also not be overlooked. The Obama administration was very careful to consider the impact of a high-level visit on perceptions and audience costs within the Washington Beltway. But was the administration as prudent regarding the way Clapper’s visit would be portrayed in Pyongyang?

Washington is right to be concerned about the manipulation of visits by high-level officials. The Korean Workers Party and state media are very adept at stage-managing visits and controlling media reports to ensure that visitors are perceived to be “paying their respects to the peerlessly great men of the Kim ruling family”. In addition, high-level visits can be portrayed as Washington’s recognition of the DPRK as a “nuclear state”, which is a regime priority. To counter this, the Obama administration has been clear it will not engage diplomatically with the DPRK until it is confident that Pyongyang will return to the Six-Party Talks and bargain in good faith to fulfill its previous denuclearisation commitments.

Many analysts have pointed out that the DPRK leadership is hyper-rational and only acts out of self-interest. The Obama administration has said there is no quid pro quo, and that Obama’s personal letter delivered by Clapper to Kim Jong-un “did not contain an apology in any way, shape or form”. But what was the price for sending Clapper? Certainly Pyongyang must have believed it got something out of the deal.

If past behaviour is a guide, the DPRK sought a written apology or admission of wrongdoing. (The most famous case is the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Negotiations dragged on for almost a year before the crew was released.) The contents of Obama’s letter are unknown; however, even if the president did not “admit, assure, and apologise” for the crimes of Bae and Miller, the regime can cite Clapper’s visit as an admission that Bae and Miller were spies.

That the DPRK has been reaching out to the international community does not mean it is becoming more liberal. The benefits of economic opening, trade, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers should be obvious even to the most conservative hardliners in Pyongyang. However, the Kim family regime has been nervous about subversive ideas entering North Korea from abroad. So the DPRK leadership faces a dilemma. Opening up is necessary for economic prosperity and successful implementation of the pyŏngjin line—the DPRK’s strategy to develop the economy and nuclear technologies simultaneously. However, opening up also raises the risk of social and political instability.

Since Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his power, the regime has increased internal security in the form of increased surveillance against threats from “enemies who wish to topple the DPRK”. Under these conditions, internal security institutions have a strong incentive to provide “more security”, which can be quantified by the number of people arrested, imprisoned, and executed.

We may never know how the DPRK government will depict Clapper’s visit in its internal communications, but if the regime is consistent with past practice, it will describe Clapper as having gone to Pyongyang to “admit, assure, and apologise” for the “crimes against the DPRK”. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Clapper’s mission “proves that Bae and Miller are guilty as charged” and the DNI went to pick up agents who were conducting espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Obama administration claims it selected Clapper for the mission, but could Pyongyang have insisted on Clapper? If the DPRK insisted on the DNI and no one else, then sending Clapper to release the Americans probably is worth the cost of Pyongyang’s internal propaganda victory. However, considering the potentially increased risk that future American tourists could be charged with espionage, sending someone outside of the U.S. intelligence community might have been more appropriate assuming Pyongyang did not make Clapper’s presence a condition of the release of the two Americans.