The Political Economy of North Korea: Implications for Denuclearization and Proliferation


Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

East-West Center Working Papers, Economics Series, No. 104


Honolulu: East-West Center

Publication Date: June 2009
Binding: paper
Pages: 25
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Despite North Korea's turn away from economic reform and the constraints of the second nuclear crisis, the country has in fact become more economically open. But it has emphasized closer economic relations with China and other trading partners that show little interest in political quid-pro-quos, let alone sanctions. Yet the U.S. can still exercise economic leverage by going aggressively after third-party financial intermediaries. This particular form of sanction does not require multilateral coordination, since foreign banking institutions that conduct significant business in the United States have a strong interest in avoiding institutions that the United States Treasury has identified as money laundering or proliferation concerns.

There is some evidence that North Korea moderated its missile proliferation activities during periods when rapprochement with the United States, and to a lesser extent Japan, was a priority, but in the absence of such interest and as legitimate trade, investment, and aid dry up, the incentives to intensify proliferation activities increase.

The internal organization of the North Korean economy has important implications for any policy seeking transformation via engagement. The economy is structured in such a way that outside economic ties are still largely monopolized by stateowned enterprises and other gatekeepers, such as the military. Under such circumstances, the precise design of engagement policies requires very close scrutiny. Even nominally commercial relations can be exploited if the North Korean counterparties believe that they are ultimately political in nature, subsidized and thus vulnerable to blackmail. If economic ties are truly commercial in nature, those choosing to trade and invest with North Korea do so at their own risk. Under these circumstances, private actors will make economic decisions fully factoring in political risk, and North Korea will bear the costs if it chooses to renege on commitments or fails to provide a supportive policy environment.

Paper prepared for the conference on "North Korean Nuclear Politics: Constructing a New Northeast Asian Order in the 21st Century," University of Washington, June 4-5, 2009. We would like to thank the Smith Richardson, MacArthur, and Korea Foundations for financial support and Jennifer Lee for research assistance.