John A. Cloud
If a miracle does happen, Washington should limit its economic activity with North Korea until it sees proof of the miracle and transformation.
Perhaps policymakers should anticipate that the United States will want to make a fundamental, positive change in its relations with North Korea. If this is the case, they will have to think about what that might mean for America’s economic policy towards Pyongyang. I start this readily admitting that I am not an Asia expert, but someone who was a working level official on Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the State Department in 1989.
You might think I’m jumping the gun, mainly since the talks are still in-the-air. However, I recently visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and reviewed documents from 1989, when the United States made a similar change in our relationship with the countries of Eastern Europe. In March 1989, the majority voice in Washington was that change would not come to the region. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania had thrown off their communist regimes.
Today there is an unusual added complication in an American President, Donald Trump, who is much more impulsive than George H. W. Bush was in 1989, and who takes pride in being unpredictable. To me, this argues that America and North Korea need to prepare for multiple challenges and opportunities.
Any improvement of our economic relations with North Korea will initially focus on what the U.S. will do concerning sanctions relief. If America is going to support broader United Nations sanctions relief, then Washington should try to tranche such relief to ensure America’s nonproliferation and other goals are met. The U.S. needs to keep in mind that it put sanctions in place for different purposes and should only be willing relax those when appropriate. At the same time, Washington needs to recognize that U.S. unilateral sanctions will not have sufficient economic effect (though there may be a political one). If the North Korean talks appear successful, America can expect several countries to press for sanctions relief as soon as possible.