(UPDATED) How Big is the North Korea Deal?

UPDATE:  (Reuters) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Japan that Washington would not remove North Korea from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism on the initial deadline of Monday, Japan’s foreign minister said.

ORGINAL POST: Marcus Noland comments in a Newsweek International op-ed how recent US policy changes towards North Korea (delisting the DPRK as a state sponsor of terror and exempting sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act) amount to very little:

Lifting the trade restrictions will have a minimal impact. North Korea will remain one of a few countries that does not have normal trade relations with the United States, meaning its exports will continue to be subjected to punitive tariffs of up to 90 percent.

Removing North Korea from the terrorism list means that Washington can now legally support it for membership in international financial organizations such as the World Bank. But the White House is under no obligation to actually do so. North Korea also remains excluded from US government programs that encourage trade and investment.

North Korea’s declaration will trigger a reconvening of the Six-Party Talks, which includes China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The inadequate nature of the declaration guarantees there will be yet another round of negotiations in which North Korea will reveal a bit more in return for further concessions. It is no accident that up to 50,000 metric tons of US food aid is expected to arrive in North Korea early this month. 

Writing in 2004 (yet relevant today), Marcus Noland wrote about these issues in depth.  Below are excerpts from his op-ed on US tariffs:

US importers of DPRK products are required to obtain prior approval from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets, certifying that the products were not produced by North Korean entities designated as having engaged in missile proliferation. Subject to this condition, approval is routine. US government officials report that they receive only a handful of such requests each year. Their impression is that business conditions in the DPRK pose a greater impediment to bilateral trade than the regulatory regime.

So, at present, with the exception of military-related products, there are few specific legal restrictions on the ability of Americans to export to or invest in the DPRK. Imports are subject to a prior approval process, but this is based on a transparent and narrowly delineated certification requirement.

Yet there is little trade between the United States and the DPRK. North Korea is among the few countries that the United States does not grant normal trade relations (NTR) status to, and North Korean exports are subject to the so-called column 2 tariff rates established by the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. These tariffs tend to be the highest on labor-intensive products such as garments, in which North Korea is conceivably competitive. Though their incidence is an accident of history, and not an intentional slap, the column 2 tariffs represent a serious potential impediment to trade. Some countries, notably China, have successfully exported to the United States despite being subject to the higher column 2 tariffs (though even China eventually gained NTR status on a year-to-year basis). Most countries that have recently obtained permanent NTR, such as China, have done so through the World Trade Organization (WTO) accession process. The DPRK has shown no interest in joining the WTO.

This disinterest is unfortunate. The United States does not grant the DPRK quotas under the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA), a worldwide network of bilateral trade quotas on textiles and apparel (due to expire in 2005), and WTO accession could aid the DPRK in this regard. In the case of the similarly diplomatically problematic Burmese government, the US government found it politically easier to accept an increase in Burmese exports to the United States than to negotiate publicly a textile agreement under WTO auspices with the repressive regime. WTO membership has its privileges. In any event, the DPRK is one of the rare countries that chronically do not fill their MFA quotas in Europe, where there are no sanctions, suggesting that the problem lies in DPRK’s inability to compete, not in trade barriers.

However, should the DPRK obtain NTR status, the United States would likely classify it as a nonmarket economy (NME) and subject it to onerous antidumping rules on the Chinese template. The point is that improved diplomatic relations is no panacea—the United States can be protectionist on purely economic grounds, regardless of politics.

Conversely, the United States trades with some low-income countries preferentially, unilaterally granting them limited tariff-free access through the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), subject to standards concerning workers’ rights, intellectual property protection, and drug trafficking. Given North Korea’s disregard for internationally accepted labor standards, it is inconceivable that the United States would grant North Korea GSP privileges under current practices, even if diplomatic relations were normalized. Yet China, which has never received GSP privileges, vividly demonstrates that it is quite possible to prosper without such advantages.

Today, internal conditions and practices in North Korea, not legal restrictions, greatly impede bilateral trade. However, with sufficient reform and improvement in competitiveness, a broad range of policy issues would become increasingly relevant. In this regard, DPRK accession to the WTO would be advantageous. In the meantime, rather than complaining about US policy, North Korean officials would be better served by redoubling their reform efforts.

For more information, read the full articles below:
Partially True Confessions: How Big is the North Korea Deal?
Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute
Newsweek (Link via the Peterson Institute)
7/7/2008

The Legal Framework of US–North Korea Trade Relations
Op-ed in JoongAng Ilbo, via the Peterson Institute web site.
Marcus Noland
4/27/2004

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