Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:34 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:34 | SYDNEY

Buying off North Korea


Sam Roggeveen


9 December 2009 14:11

East Asia Forum has reproduced an article by Asia Foundation scholar Scott Snyder proposing a way forward on the diplomatic impasse over North Korea's nuclear program:

...the North Korean plea for foreign investment does suggest a potential point of leverage that deserves careful consideration, and that is the possibility of an investment in a strategic commodity that is of special interest to the United States: North Korea’s plutonium stock. During the Clinton administration, former Defence Secretary William Perry led efforts to make similar purchases of nuclear materials from the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which had inherited stocks of nuclear materials from the breakup of the Soviet Union. These transactions advanced the cause of nuclear non-proliferation by ensuring that these countries would not become nuclear states.

Snyder admits there are moral hazard problems with this approach, in that it seems to reward North Korea's bad behaviour. But the proposal does play to one of America's great and largely unexploited strengths in this dispute: its wealth.

Frustratingly, Snyder never suggests a price for North Korea's plutonium, so can I suggest $1.2 billion per year? That seems rather exorbitant, but it's not a random figure. It comes from noted game theorist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has used predictive models to come up with an annual amount that might persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Mesquita has been quite successful with these models (enough to interest the CIA, at least), but you don't have to believe in the predictive power of the model to accept Mesquita's premise that simple bribery might be the best way to convince North Korea to give up its weapons.

In a sense, this has been tried before, in the form of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which included a pledge by the US and South Korea to supply to fuel oil to Pyongyang and build two nuclear power reactors. That agreement broke down, so maybe the bribe just needs to be bigger.

Yes, this sounds morally distasteful, but politics is often about choosing the lesser evil. And considering the tens of billions of dollars it costs the US to garrison its forces in South Korea and the threat North Korea's nuclear weapons pose, it's a little puzzling that simple bribery hasn't been pursued.