While Obama sleeps, China cheats, and Korea’s doomsday clock ticks

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” – Winston Churchill

It has now been six weeks since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, and the U.S. and China remain deadlocked in their talks about a new resolution to close the loopholes in existing U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang is racing to make its nuclear armament a fait accompli before the next U.S. administration warms the chairs in the White House and Foggy Bottom. Kim Jong-un also has reason to hope that after 2017, it might be dealing with the sort of alt-left South Korean leader who would ask his permission before enforcing U.N. sanctions, and who would pressure a Clinton administration to start “peace” talks, Pyongyang’s preconditions for which would amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. That would put His Corpulency within sight of achieving hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. At the current rate, he is winning that race.

Would President Park choose to let that happen and go quietly into the night, or would she prefer to take her chances with preemptive strikes, with or without U.S. support? President Park’s Plan B may well look very much like Israel’s Operation Opera in 1982. The risks of miscalculation and escalation should require no elaboration. So when sanctions skeptics warn us of the risk that effective sanctions enforcement triggers a financial crisis in Pyongyang, just consider the alternatives.

Over the last few days, I’ve read a smattering of self-congratulatory reports that China is finally enforcing sanctions against North Korea by cutting back on coal imports. This is flawed and dangerously wishful thinking. First, China has historically reacted to U.S. diplomatic pressure by dialing down commerce with Pyongyang for a few weeks or months until the heat is off. Then, it goes right back to propping up Pyongyang and breaking sanctions like it always has. Second, the skyrocketing price of coal could yield a massive financial windfall for Pyongyang:

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At these prices, His Porcine Majesty can sustain his regime and keep nuking up by exporting a fraction of the volume of coal he exported last year.

China is helping North Korea break sanctions in other ways, too. It’s exporting kerosene to North Korea, in direct violation of UNSCR 2270. Work at the Musan mine near the Chinese border doesn’t appear to have slowed at all. North Korea’s main port at Nampo is crowded with ships loaded with coal, seafood, and other wares for the Chinese market. Some of the North Korean vessels approach the Chinese coast, hover offshore, meet up with smaller vessels coming from Chinese ports, and return to North Korea. Such “hovering vessels” have historically been used for smuggling, by evading customs inspections. This report is consistent with what trusted friends have observed in shipping trackers for months. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say this is probably indicative of the smuggling of bulk cash or gold, either of which would also violate UNSCR 2270.

The idea that China is willfully undermining U.N. sanctions by permitting such brazen sanctions violations shouldn’t shock anyone. It would be absolutely consistent with how China has behaved for the last 20 years. What are a few sanctions violations to a government that routinely aids and abets Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity? What will it take for us to realize that a government that talks like our enemy and acts like our enemy is, for purposes of North Korea policy, our enemy?

The administration knows what it needs to do. Regardless of the price of coal, and regardless of the volume of coal — or anything else — that North Korea exports, all of that revenue goes into bank accounts in China. In recent months, I’ve become convinced we know where most of those bank accounts are. What is the answer to China’s years of duplicity, bad faith, double-dealing, and stalling? The answer is to walk away from the negotiations with China, build a diplomatic coalition to enforce sanctions with the authorities we already have, and freeze Kim Jong-un’s offshore accounts.

President Obama’s North Korea legacy will be to leave his successor and our allies with an escalating nuclear crisis, a deteriorating humanitarian situation, and possibly a nuclear arms race in Asia. History will eventually rank it alongside the failure of the Green Revolution in Iran, the near-collapse in Iraq, and the Syria fiasco as one of his greatest foreign policy failures. The question now is whether he will leave his successor with the makings of a strategy to stop Kim Jong-un while there’s still time … if there’s still time.

Enough procrastination. Enough half-measures. We can close the livelihood exception ourselves by using the NKSPEA, Executive Order 13687, and Executive Order 13722 to penalize the banks that hold Kim Jong-un’s revenue and launder his money. Freeze and forfeit the bank accounts, already! It’s the law, the President signed it, Congress wants him to enforce it, our allies want him to enforce it, and a global financial coalition is ready to help us execute it. Once we’ve got them by the banks, their hearts and minds will follow. Until we have, Korea’s doomsday clock will keep ticking toward midnight.

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