U.N. & Obama vacillate as our last chance to stop Kim Jong-un runs out

Have you ever heard the late Christopher Hitchens speak about his visit to North Korea, and how he promised himself that he would not use the “1984” cliche? “Eventually,” Hitchens said, “They make you do it.” I believe it was sometime around 2007 that I made the same promise to myself about the Hans Blix scene in “Team America” when speaking of the U.N.’s response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen behavior. It has become another cliche, but they also make you do it.

This week, Samantha Power went to the Security Council and said this:

The DPRK’s missile tests help it to threaten the territory of even more countries in the region, whether through its land-based missiles or now via its recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Once the DPRK has the capability to do so, we know what they intend to do with these missile systems, because they have told us. They are explicit: they intend to arm the systems with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un said this himself yesterday, according to the DPRK’s official news agency. [….]

The Security Council must remain unequivocal and united in condemnation of these tests, and we must take action to enforce the words we put on paper – to enforce our resolutions.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, words words words or something. At least the White House made a feint at meeting the test posed by Power’s last clause when it refused to rule out more sanctions, but there aren’t any signs that it means to impose any, either. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, spokesman Josh Earnest (whose name is an oxymoron) said that the U.S. and China have worked “cooperatively in a coordinated fashion” to “steadily ratchet up” the pressure on North Korea. Unless Earnest really means that we’re cooperating with Beijing because we’ve capitulated to it, this is just more bullshit.

Despite the evidentiary and analytical challenges of calculating North Korea’s trade with China, the best evidence we have suggests that China continues to exploit the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports to prop up Kim Jong-un’s rule. Despite the importance of drawing distinctions between trade that feeds the North Korean people and trade that props up the regime, bilateral trade hasn’t fallen much overall, and the small decline may owe more to China’s sagging economy than to its enforcement of sanctions. To make up for the drop in the coal trade and falling prices, China is sending more tourists to North Korea and accepting more slave labor from North Korea, including those formerly employed at Kaesong. Beijing is also engaging in public displays of affection with Pyongyang to show how much more worried it is about South Korean missile defense than it is about North Korean missiles.

China’s recent purchase of North Korean fishing rights was unconscionable and inhumane. It took away a source of food that should fill the markets that feed North Korea’s poor, and replaced it with another source of unrestricted cash for the ruling class in Pyongyang. By doing so, it arguably violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To state what should be obvious, Kim Jong-un is politically invested in his weapons programs and won’t change his behavior unless the world can unite to coerce that change. Evans Revere, a recovering engager whom I probably wouldn’t have cited approvingly a few years ago, is almost certainly correct when he says, “The only way to get North Korea’s attention is to put at risk the one thing that North Korea values more highly than its nuclear weapons. That’s the future existence of the regime.” Revere now concedes that positive incentives haven’t worked on Pyongyang, and with North Korea “rapidly improving its ability to deliver nuclear and other weapons toward specific targets accurately,” we can’t rule out the possibility that it “might seek to use nuclear weapons to blackmail one or more of its neighbors.” Well, yes.

Japan and South Korea are both calling for more sanctions to prevent this outcome, but it’s fairly clear that the Obama administration isn’t pushing for any, and is mostly concerned with avoiding any sort of crisis before it slinks out of town, after having wasted eight critical years. South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers will visit Washington in October to make their case for “specific measures” again. Seoul thinks this may be its last chance to prevent North Korea from reaching nuclear breakout and subjecting it to the slow strangulation of nuclear blackmail, and I suspect that they’re probably right about that. Hopefully, when President Obama met with President Park instead of the President of the Philippines, she made that case forcefully. Nothing less than South Korea’s survival as a democracy depends on it.

With our time quickly running out, the idea of settling for a piece of paper from the U.N. is madness. Although the U.N. statement hints at “significant measures,” a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying that “many council members supported the idea of further measures,” but “fell short of a consensus.” So presumably, China continues to be unhelpful and obstructionist, the Obama administration continues to be weak and indecisive, and no further resolutions will be forthcoming until Pyongyang does something else, like another nuke test. And perhaps, not even then.

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As for what sanctions we should impose now, I posted my own wish list in July. It includes:

(1) the designation of North Korean entities, such as Air Koryo, the DPRK Central Bank, and North Korea’s state insurance companies, all of which are facilitating sanctions violations;

(2) the closing of loopholes left over from UNSCR 2270, including the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports; and

(3) new measures, including a ban on labor and food exports by North Korea, and a requirement to disclose beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals to the Panel of Experts.

In the case of Air Koryo, there’s no question that it flagrantly violates the luxury goods ban; journalists have tweeted photographs of huge flat screen TVs being loaded aboard its flights. The U.N. Panel of Experts has implicated Air Koryo in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts, and notes that the dual civilian and military use of some of its aircraft could itself constitute a violation of the arms embargo. The Panel of Experts has also noted that Air Koryo holds a number of suspicious debts to recently formed shell companies, implying that Air Koryo is involved in money laundering or sanctions evasion. According to South Korean press reports, Air Koryo is also used to ferry bulk cash to evade U.N. sanctions. 

As for concerns that Air Koryo also engages in legitimate civilian business, I would respond that if Air Koryo were to be designated, third-country airlines would take over its routes, because Pyongyang needs to have air commerce of some kind. The same can be said of North Korea’s financial, shipping, and insurance industries. Pyongyang has repeatedly used all of these state-owned industries for sanctions evasion and proliferation. If those industries were sanctioned and shut down, then third-country airlines, insurers, ships, and banks — which would presumably have more incentives to follow the law — would take up the slack. That would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to violate U.N. sanctions.

Above all, however, U.N. member states must be willing to use their national laws to impose secondary sanctions on entities — especially Chinese entities — that knowingly help Pyongyang violate U.N. sanctions. This is now a requirement under U.S. law, and I remain concerned that the Obama administration isn’t following it. Without secondary sanctions — and most critically, the strict enforcement of secondary financial sanctions against North Korea’s bank accounts in China and elsewhere — North Korea will find ways around the sanctions, because plenty of Chinese companies will be willing to help it find those ways. Are we serious about global nonproliferation, the security of the world’s most economically vital region, and the protection of the democratic system of our treaty ally in South Korea? I’m searching in vain for any evidence that we are.

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Update: Stop the presses. Maybe President Park was persuasive after all.

1 Comment

  1. Regarding words, words and more words, I wonder if it would be a game changer for the US to suggest to the Chinese that if they are unable to rein in the NK nuclear program, the US will have no alternative but to release Korea and Japan from restrictions on developing their own nuclear weapons. Given the Chinese reaction to the deployment of US defensive missiles (THAAD) in Korea, it is sure to grab their attention, given that both Korea and Japan are growing restive under the restrictions. US restrictions were reasonable when there was hope of preventing NE Asia from an arms race and Japan and Korea were willing to sit in the shadow of the US nuclear umbrella, but now that China and NK have them, perhaps it is time to reconsider the evolving needs of NK’s nearest neighbors.

    As for ballistic missiles, given NK’s regular threats of death and destruction to Seoul and the US, it might be emotionally satisfying to announce that the US considers any ballistic missile fueling on a NK launch pad are an existential threat to US interests, and therefore subject to destruction before it launches. And while we’re at it, can someone please find an excuse to take out the USS Pueblo, which remains a commissioned vessel of the US Navy after nearly 50 years in captivity and now serves as a tourist attraction in Pyongyang?




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