What the U.N.’s new North Korea sanctions resolution should (and should not) do.

Yonhap reports that the U.S. and China have made progress toward an agreement on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution. Although we’ve seen few hints about exactly what sanctions China is willing to sign up for — much less enforce — China is paying lip service to the notion that North Korea must pay a “necessary price” for its behavior. Has Xi Jinping relented in his unprecedented stubbornness, or was it always China’s plan to relent after stalling us, in the hope that with time, the pressure on it would subside? But the pressure has built, not subsided, and the Washington Post‘s Simon Denyer sees signs that this pressure, including the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, may be causing China to re-think its “paternal benevolence” toward North Korea.

New sanctions legislation may have also played a role, and the State Department is already using the threat of secondary sanctions in its talks with China. This threat has deep political backing in Washington. Everyone with a megaphone is in a foul mood toward China — Congress, presidential candidates, Korea scholars, and the editorial pages. In recent weeks, The Washington Post and The New York Times have both called for the President to use new legislation to apply secondary sanctions to North Korea’s Chinese enablers. Here’s hoping we’ll keep that pressure on until China acts responsibly.

This new leverage will be helpful if it gets us to a new U.N. resolution that includes (and enforces!) useful measures, such as —

  • Above all: requiring member states to report North Korean property, accounts, and transactions to the U.N. Panel of Experts;
  • Shipping sanctions prohibiting the provision of insurance, bunkering, and reflagging services to North Korean ships, thus forcing North Korea to rely on foreign ships for its maritime trade;
  • Designating Air Koryo, thus closing off another avenue for North Korean arms and luxury goods smuggling;
  • Expanding designations to include more North Korean banks, government agencies, and senior officials involved in violating the resolutions; and
  • Prohibiting the use of North Korean forced labor.

Would accountability for North Korea’s crimes against humanity be too much to hope for? Probably, but we should keep demanding it — publicly — until China relents, even if it takes years.

Other ideas in circulation cause me more concern that policymakers could lose the plot and take sanctions too far, or in the wrong direction. For example, the U.N. should not (and almost certainly, would not) indiscriminately cut off all trade between China and North Korea. That would be counterproductive, ineffective, and inhumane. Sanctions are meant to retard and punish proliferation and show Pyongyang that defiance is a losing proposition. They can be targeted to defund the state’s military and security forces, force cadres to turn to corruption and smuggling for a living, and by default, shift North Korea’s internal balance of power from the men with guns to those without. If properly targeted and administered, they might even force reforms.

Freezing the regime’s trading companies, hard currency businesses, and offshore slush funds serves this goal; hunger in the provinces does not. On the contrary, circumstantial evidence has long suggested that the regime uses food as a weapon to control its subjects. After all, by any reasonable reckoning, North Korea has more than enough money to feed all of its people, but has willfully chosen not to. Perhaps Pyongyang sees liberation from the state’s rations as a first step toward economic liberation, intellectual liberation, and eventually, political liberation. Perhaps it is, which is why we should catalyze precisely this progression inside North Korea.

That’s why sanctions should avoid attacking the trade networks that support the jangmadang markets that are feeding most North Koreans. When regime-controlled networks also supply these markets, they should be assigned a secondary priority for sanctions targeting, until non-regime-controlled networks are capable of supplanting them.

Fortunately, I’ve seen no serious proposals to impose a trade blockade on North Korea, despite North Koreans’ fears of one. North Koreans may not understand how modern sanctions work. You can hardly blame them for this when hardly anyone in Washington, Seoul, or Brussels does either. But those who don’t live in Chongjin or Sinuiju and think “sanctions” means trade sanctions are stuck in the 80s.

There are, however, serious proposals circulating in South Korea for a fuel blockade against North Korea. Some in Seoul believe that this would cause North Korea’s collapse, although I’m not sure why that’s so. China is opposed to a total fuel cutoff because of its potential “impact on the ordinary North Korean people.” I haven’t lost sight of the humanitarian benefits of the collapse of this regime, but here, I find myself in rare sympathy with China’s position on the basic principle. After that, things get more complicated.

First, I’m not sure that China is still exporting crude oil to North Korea, or that North Korea still has the capacity to refine it (I’d welcome the opinions of informed readers). China does export refined petroleum products, such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and heavy fuel oil to North Korea, some of which is pilfered from state stocks and sold on the black market. All of these products have different impacts on the North Korean economy. To add further to the confusion, China has sometimes omits fuel exports from its official trade statistics. Marcus Noland smells a rat, and I also suspect that China is disinforming us to take pressure off itself.

Proponents of a fuel blockade should remember that gasoline and diesel don’t just fuel military vehicles; they also fuel vehicles used to plant, grow, and transport food. (Although many North Korean farmers still use oxen to plow fields, or use wood-gas-powered trucks to transport food.) Often, the same vehicles are used for both purposes.

Heavy fuel oil is used to heat homes in cities. In small towns and in the country, people heat their homes with coal, charcoal, and firewood. Cutting off fuel oil would make a lot of people cold, and perhaps reinforce their xenophobic hatred of us, but His Corpulency would never freeze.

There is, however, one category of fuel that China should stop selling to North Korea — jet fuel. Cutting off the supply of jet fuel would ground the North Korean Air Force and deny its pilots the flying hours they need to stay ready. It would ground Air Koryo, which is effectively under military control, as the U.N. Panel of Experts has noted. It would improve enforcement of the arms trade and proliferation bans, because Air Koryo is known to have used its fleet of (mostly Il-76) transports to smuggle weapons and other contraband. It would improve enforcement of the luxury goods ban, because Air Koryo passengers carry prohibited luxury goods from China to North Korea on its flights. Finally, it would deny Pyongyang some of the revenue it earns from tourism.

I don’t yield to anyone in my wish for Götterdämmerung in Pyongyang, but let’s keep a few things in mind. First, we must never back the regime into a position where war becomes an acceptable alternative or a necessary deterrent. Pressure on the regime must be steady and firm, but calibrated such that good-faith negotiation is always a safer alternative for Pyongyang than either war or the status quo. The strategy must be to convince Kim Jong-un — or those around him — that time is not on their side, and that the path to survival lies through a negotiated disarmament, peace, and reunification. If it becomes necessary to prevent war, we may even have to make the painful choice to grant safe passage, or some form of amnesty, to people who have committed horrific crimes against their own people.

Second, hard-liners should remember that the same soft-liners who never raised a peep as Pyongyang sanctioned and starved its own people are always waiting to pounce and blame them for starving North Korean babies. It’s unfair and disingenuous, but the world has never been fair. No policy can endure for long without the support of the political mainstream.

More fundamentally, we can’t solve the North Korea crisis without a much more sustained and methodical effort to win over the North Korean people. Sanctions will play an important role in changing North Korea, but as I’ve said all along, they are not a complete policy. South Korea, as the only legitimate Korean government, must also devote serious thought, creativity, technology, and political will to breaking through the digital DMZ, and giving North Koreans the means to speak freely to other Koreans from Paektu-san to Halla-san, and spread a message of rice, peace, and freedom to Koreans north of the DMZ.


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