Can North Korea be dissuaded?

Kai Ryssdal Oct 9, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Analysts are still trying to figure out what exactly it was that North Korea did overnight. But politicians are treating it as the real thing. Most of the action today was in New York at the United Nations, where there seemed to be rare consensus on how to react. Mike Chinoy’s a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy. Mike, good to talk to you.

MIKE CHINOY: I’m glad to be here.

RYSSDAL: The West, and the United States and the United Nations, even, have been trying for years to persuade North Korea not to do certain things with the threat of sanctions. How important is it this time around that China and Russia seem to be taking a much harder line?

CHINOY: It’s potentially very important. The Chinese provide the lion’s share of North Korea’s food and fuel. The Beijing airport is really North Korea’s major lifeline in terms of international air traffic. The Chinese have a lot of leverage. And the big question is how much of it are they prepared to use and how forcefully. But it’s a very tricky balancing act for the Chinese because on the one hand they don’t like the idea of a nuclear North Korea; on the other hand they are very nervous about the possibility of collapse in North Korea in which they would be left facing an implosion in a state with all the problems North Korea has right on their borders.

RYSSDAL: How much is left to take away from North Korea? The economy’s already been destroyed. It’s completely isolated. What levers are left?

CHINOY: There are some levers left but I think it’s an open question how effective they’ll be. The United States has very aggressively pursued North Korea’s interactions with the world financial community in the last year. Washington using this effort to curb illicit North Korean activities such as counterfeiting and money laundering. There are some things that could be done — a ban on international travel, further pressure to prevent any international businesses or banks or companies from trading with North Korea. But the pattern with North Koreans is that they feel themselves really under seige, and refusing to bow to external pressure is a central element of the North Korean psyche. So, I think the prospect of suffering for the North Korean people is not necessarily going to make the regime change.

RYSSDAL: The President this morning in his remarks from Washington spoke a lot about proliferation and how it will not be tolerated. What’s the risk that North Korea, if it is economically further isolated and cut off from international financial transactions, what’s the risk that Pyongyang would start selling that nuclear technology and the nuclear materials to places like Iran and Syria as a way to get hard cash.

CHINOY: It’s certainly a possibility. The North Koreans have a long track record of selling technology, weapons technology, to unsavory regimes around the world. It should be noted, though, that in their statement last week announcing plans for this test, the North Koreans said explicitly that they would not export this material. And they have tried in the language they have used — if you study their statements — to come across as a responsible new member of the nuclear club. But Mr. Bush has now made clear that proliferation is a red line and the North Koreans know that. They, I think, still want to see at the end of the day the world coming around to grudgingly accepting that North Korea is a member of the nuclear club and will have to be dealt with.

RYSSDAL: Mike Chinoy is a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He covered Asia for many years for CNN. Mike, thanks a lot for your time.

CHINOY: Happy to speak with you.

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