In a recent tweet, Trump said:
The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!
But I don't get it, what does he mean with "extortion money"?
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Extortion is a crime in which a criminal threatens to harm someone, unless they pay an amount of money: "Give me £1000, or you will get beaten up".
In the Early 90s, North Korea indicated its withdrawal from the Nuclear non-poliferation treaty. This treaty allowed inspector to visit nuclear facilities to confirm that they weren't being used to develop Nuclear weapons. In 1994, the US and North Korea signed an agreement that North Korea would freeze operation and construction of nuclear reactors (that the US believed were actually intended for the production of plutonium), and in return the US would aid North Korea to build two new reactors that couldn't be used to create weapon grade plutonium. The US would also provide fuel oil as aid until the reactors were ready.
A similar agreement was discussed at the 6 nation talks in 1997: NK stops developing nuclear technology, in return for energy aid
This is an example of what Donald Trump means by "extortion": North Korea obtains aid in the form of fuel oil by agreeing not to develop nuclear technology.
"Extortion" in this case is political hyperbole and not necessarily meant as a statement of fact - ie North Korea was literally extorting money from the US.
The NYT states:
It was not clear what money the president was referring to.
The NYT guesses that this is a reference to foreign aid:
Over the years, the United States has given money to North Korea for humanitarian assistance.
Fox News makes the same assumption:
As for Trump's "extortion" claim, he could be referring to food aid provided by the U.S. and others in the past when North Korea has temporarily halted nuclear development.
According to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, “between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance: slightly more than 50 percent for food aid and about 40 percent for energy assistance.”
CNN connects this aid to the North Korea nuclear program:
It was not immediately clear what Trump meant by "extortion money," though previous administrations have tried to defuse nuclear tensions by offering the North Korean regime food and aid packages.
What Trump is suggesting here is that this help was not given freely or solely to help the people of North Korea, but as a result of the threat North Korea poses. "Extortion" is just political hyperbole in this case.
It's a reference to the perceived motivations behind many of their nuclear tests and ballistic missile testing.
Quite often it seems the pattern behind when they really step up the frequency is to try and use that escalation to try and get the major countries to want to sit down at the table, with wanting the USA, especially, to be a participant, where the "concession" is usually offered to curtail their activities in exchange for easing of sanctions or some kind of aid package.
The problem with the strategy is that they return to bluster and belligerence and testing. So after a couple rounds of offering aid or concessions and them going back on the agreement, they no longer have any credibility in negotiations, and the parties involved, especially the USA, don't see any benefit to offering anything conciliatory. So it instead becomes "you stop FIRST, and then we'll see," which is a non-starter from the North Korean perspective.
As already explained, when North Korea left the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the western powers gave it an aid package in return for an agreement not to pursue nuclear weapons. The first time, that may have simply been a deal. However, the same pattern has since been repeated multiple times. A collection of people across the political spectrum have described this pattern as extortion or blackmail.
The liberal news site, the Huffington Post said:
For starters, North Korea's latest threat takes it place in a long line of attempts to extort aid and concessions from South Korea and the United States. Such extortion -- often successful in the past -- has become such an oft-repeated pattern that it once prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to lament at having to "buy the same horse twice."
The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation said:
Time To Stop North Korea's Missile Blackmail
North Korea's August 31 missile test that flew over Japan highlights a growing missile threat to Japan, South Korea, and the United States. This test follows North Korea's demands for $500 million to halt its missile exports, as well as threats to revive its nuclear weapons program if it does not get more money. Such blatant extortion demonstrates the failure of U.S. policies that have sought to appease the North by promises of aid and trade.
The liberal think tank, the Brookings Institute said:
Despite some impressive successes, notably the 1994 Agreed Framework capping North Korea’s nuclear activities, the Clinton policy of engagement does not offer a promising route. That approach was effective for a time but was somewhat too narrow and tactical, focusing largely on the crisis du jour. The approach appears ultimately to have encouraged in North Korea’s repressive leaders a worsening habit of trying to extort resources from the international community in exchange for cutting back its dangerous weapons programs.
President Bush is impatient with this sort of attempted blackmail.
Libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute said:
The DPRK has obvious reasons to maintain at least a small nuclear arsenal: nuclear weapons offer defense against an alliance possessing overwhelming military advantages, a source of international prestige, and a means to extort money and other benefits from neighbors.
Note that libertarians tend to be liberal (dovish) on military issues.
I found these examples by searching for "North Korea extorts aid".
Liberals and conservatives (or hawks and doves) have very different suggested solutions, but both agree that this pattern is extortion/blackmail. And this isn't a new observation. People have been saying that since the Clinton administration.
There is no international law enforcement body that can convict North Korea of extortion or blackmail. So the legal distinction between the two doesn't matter so much here. Both involve threatening to do something unless compensated. In everyday English, they are used interchangeably because most people don't know the legal difference.
This is not an example of Donald Trump running against the establishment view. In this case, he agrees with the establishment that there is a problem. They only differ in their proposed solutions. And of course, there isn't a single establishment solution in this case. There's a hawkish solution of preemptive military action. There's a dovish solution of simply ignoring him. And there's a compromise solution of continuing to pay the extortion so as not to make a decision.
Rather than concentrating on his description of the problem, people who oppose Trump would be better off concentrating on his proposed solution. Because trying to argue that North Korea is not attempting to extort aid or other concessions flies in the face of the evidence. There are real pros and cons to his solution that are worth discussing. But pretending that there isn't a problem strengthens him, as it is obviously false.
There's the same problem with nitpicking his claim. 1993 was only twenty-four years ago, not twenty-five. Aid stopped in 2009, as the Obama pursued diplomatic solutions. The net result of talking without paying has been nuclear tests. But the claim is largely true. For the last twenty-four years, we've talked to North Korea with intermittent breaks and payments (in goods rather than currency). They're now doing nuclear tests. Pretty much everyone in the west agrees that that is bad.
Arguing over pedantic details in the face of a real problem strengthens Trump's hand. It makes it look like he's the one who cares about what is important, while others are just playing petty politics and arguing over semantics.