By all outward appearances, President Obama never really had a coherent North Korea policy. While pursuing a deal that Pyongyang either didn’t want or wouldn’t keep, it reacted to each nuclear test by building on John Bolton’s work and nominally tightening the sanctions the U.N. initially imposed a decade ago, in Resolution 1718. The idea, apparently, was to deter Pyongyang by threatening its plans to develop Hamhung and Chongjin, something it no more intends to do than the Confederacy intended to institute a slave literacy campaign. Under President Obama, sanctions were always incremental, were never well-enforced, and never seemed to be part of any plausible broader strategy.
Still, if only to make a display of doing something after each test, the U.S. would expend much diplomatic energy on haggling with China (and Russia — let’s not forget Russia) over the terms of a new resolution. In due course, the Security Council would approve it, and for three or four months, everyone would pretend that this time was different before returning to business as usual.
As of today, 74 days have passed since September 9th, when North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, yet there is still no agreed draft resolution. For those keeping score, that’s the longest delay yet between a test and a resolution (the previous record of 56 days was set earlier this year, after the fourth nuclear test).
Three weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that the P-5 were close to a deal on “[a] new sanctions package … that more effectively blocks the regime’s overseas funding sources,” and might narrow a “livelihood purposes” loophole that effectively nullified a ban on North Korea’s coal exports (see also). The U.S. side was also pushing China to agree to “crack down” on North Korea’s slave labor exports.
Meanwhile, Bureau 39 continues to rake in millions of dollars from higher coal prices, at the expense of military-controlled trading companies (but see this contrary report that coal prices are actually falling).
Reports today say that talks between the U.S. and China are in “their final stages,” but we’ve heard that before, and we still have no word that the two sides have agreed on a draft resolution. A few days ago, Obama had his last meeting with Xi Jinping. The meeting produced little more than a pro-forma agreement that the Korean Peninsula should be nuclear-free, a statement that increasingly becomes moot for North Korea as it gains relevance for South Korea. One of Obama’s priorities for that meeting was to push China to crack down on North Korea. If the result isn’t a significantly tougher resolution within a week, we can probably conclude that President Obama failed to achieve that goal.
That would lend credence to reports that China is stalling talks on a new resolution, perhaps until Obama leaves office. According to those reports, China is still smarting over the U.S. indictment of flagrant sanctions cheat Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development (while sparing the banks that facilitated the violations). It may be calculating that a President Trump will be more focused on economic issues and won’t want to start off by antagonizing China over a low-priority issue like North Korea. That would be a big gamble.
If so, China may be miscalculating. Although the President-Elect has yet to name several key members of his national security cabinet, what we know so far doesn’t suggest that he’s likely to adopt a soft line or make North Korea a back-burner issue. The most talked-about contenders for Secretary of State are Mitt Romney and … John Bolton (enough said?). James Mattis, who recently spoke to the President Elect about North Korea and other issues, didn’t earn the nickname “Mad Dog” by calling for agreed frameworks. (Update: My favorite Mattis quote: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”)
There is also direct evidence of what those close to President Elect Trump have said about North Korea policy. In a meeting with South Korea’s deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong, Michael Flynn, the selectee to be the next National Security Advisor, called the U.S.-South Korea alliance “vital” and said the new administration would make North Korea a priority. At the time, Flynn did not specify how, but Cho later said that Trump would adopt “stern measures,” and that his aides see “no momentum” for dialogue with North Korea. Flynn was previously quoted as saying, “We should not let the current North Korea regime … exist for a long time.”
Despite Trump’s loose talk of talks with His Porcine Majesty, one Trump advisor, former congressman Pete Hoekstra, has already ruled them out for “the near future.” Heritage Foundation ex-President and Trump advisor Edward Fuelner has specifically said that the U.S. would impose a secondary boycott on Chinese firms that are propping up Pyongyang financially.
Even before Election Day, we knew that the next president could clash with China over North Korea. The result of the election doesn’t seem to have diminished the likelihood of that. I increasingly incline to the view that either the current President or the next one should signal to the Chinese that if they don’t agree to and enforce tough new sanctions, we’ll walk away from talks over a new resolution and act on our own. That strategy would use a combination of progressive diplomacy and the thinly veiled threat of Executive Order 13722 sanctions to get foreign governments to enforce UNSCR 2270. President Obama knows what he needs to do, but lacks the will. China would be ill-advised to assume the same of President Trump.
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* Update: I couldn’t resist changing the title.