Trump struggles on North Korea, but it’s still the first quarter (updated)

By this time tomorrow, we’ll know whether initial reports that Kim Jong-nam was assassinated by two North Korean women with a poison needle at the Kuala Lumpur Airport were wrong or only half-wrong. For now, I’ll dwell on grading the Trump administration’s answers to its first North Korean test — the test of a missile system whose moderate range belies its potential dangerousness, given its potential to be launched from a mobile carrier or a submarine. So far, that grade is a C-minus, but it’s still only the first quarter.

No doubt, the North Koreans knew that Trump would get the news during dinner with Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Largo. That Trump devoted two days to meeting with Abe and restoring the confidence of an important ally is praiseworthy. Trump’s immediate reaction to the test, however, attracted criticism that he, Abe, and their aides held a sensitive (and perhaps, classified) discussion in an open, non-secure area. That was followed by a short, overly cautious, obviously scripted (good!) statement from a glowering Trump, who said nothing except that he would stand by Japan. The next day, Trump called North Korea “a big, big problem” and promised, without elaborating, to “deal with that very strongly.” So?

So, the administration is hinting at another Air Force flyover in Korea. That’s fine for reassuring the South Koreans, but I strongly doubt that Kim Jong-un cares.

The U.S., South Korea, and Japan also agreed to take the matter straight to the U.N., but they walked away with no better than a pro-formastatement, which has no legal effect. I didn’t expect a resolution, but I would have at least expected Trump to direct Ambassador Haley to push for some additional U.N. designations — of Air Koryo, the Korean National Insurance Corporation, various slave-labor exporters, or at the very least, some additional ships (such as those the Obama administration recently undesignated). It’s possible that behind the scenes, the U.S. and its allies are still pushing for this; we’ll know within a few days. The U.S. and its allies could also carry their frustrations with North Korea and China into the bargaining over the text of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ next report, which is due to be released in a month or so, and which is sure to contain at least one (literally) explosive revelation.

To back up its negotiating position with a threat of consequences, the Treasury Department could do another round of designations of North Korean targets, or (better yet) Chinese targets that are helpingNorth Korea break sanctions. The latter option is (a) what’s needed, (b) what Congresswants, and (c) what Rex Tillerson promised in his confirmation hearing.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado on Sunday issued a statement on Pyongyang’s latest missile test, urging the Trump administration “to immediately pursue a series of tough measures, to include additional sanctions designations and show-of-force military exercises with our allies in the region, to send a message to Kim Jong-un that we remain committed to deterring the North Korean threat.”

Gardner, the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, authored the North Korea Sanctions Policy and Enhancement Act enacted last year through which Washington imposed landmark unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.

He said that the latest missile test is an example of why “U.S. policy toward North Korea should never be ‘strategic patience,’ as it was during the Obama administration.”

On Friday, Gardner sent a letter to Trump to urge his administration to take a “determined and resolute U.S. policy toward North Korea.”

In the letter, Gardner urged the Trump administration to fully enforce existing U.S. and multilateral sanctions regarding North Korea and impose additional sanctions as necessary, highlight the regime’s illicit nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, human rights abuses and malicious cyber activities.

He also urged Trump to “employ all diplomatic tools to pressure” Beijing to fully enforce its North Korea sanctions commitments and encouraged secondary sanctions on any China-based entities that are found to be in violation of U.S. and UN measures.

Gardner called upon Trump to enhance Washington’s “defense and deterrence posture in East Asia,” especially urging the placement of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, system in South Korea.

“We must not allow China’s unprecedented pressure campaign against the ROK (Republic of Korea) to cancel the Thaad deployment succeed,” he wrote. [Joongang Ilbo]

Recent events give us a strong basis for optimism in this regard. On February 3, following an Iranian missile test, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 13 individuals and 12 entities. Of these, three of the individuals had Chinese names or nationalities, and one of the entities was Chinese. This drew the usual howls of protest from the Forbidden City, which is firmly opposed to unilateral sanctions, exceptwhenit isn’t. The designations of Chinese entities working with Iran could mean that China’s days of immunity to U.S. sanctions are over.

Finally, the missile test could influence the new administration’s review of its North Korea policy and help it decide how to improve on “strategic patience.” Michael Flynn’s resignation last night could impact the contours of the new policy, depending on who succeeds him. Whatever Flynn’s other faults — and this is a blog about North Korea, so I’ll leave that discussion to others — he said nothing about North Korea that I disagreed with. Critical to that policy review will be the question of whether the U.S. will be willing to take diplomatic, overt, covert, or clandestine action to subvert Kim Jong-un’s political control inside North Korea itself. Such a strategy, in tandem with strong sanctions enforcement, will probably be a necessary element in convincing the generals in Pyongyang that they can only survive by coming to an accord with the U.S. and South Korea.

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Updates: Have you heard that thing where they say “take him seriously, but not literally?”

I guess “on” is better than “with,” so take from that what you will, if anything at all. Ambassador Haley sent a clearer signal:

Haley may be a novice in foreign policy, but she pretty obviously gets it. Experience is no substitute for good judgment.

It wasn’t the council condemnation that was significant and notable, but rather the print statement issued by new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley as she entered the consultations room.

Just weeks into her position, the tough-talking diplomat said Monday, “It’s time to hold North Korea accountable, not with our words, but with our actions.” Also in contrast to other recent US ambassadors, there was criticism aimed at China over its support of Pyongyang.

Haley wrote, “We call on all members of the Security Council to use every available resource to make it clear to the North Korean regime, and its enablers, that these launches are unacceptable.”

Enablers? No doubt a Trump administration shot across the bow aimed at Beijing. China went along with the council statement issued Monday night calling the launch a grave violation of its obligations under Security Council resolutions.

[….]

Haley’s veiled shot at China is not the diplomatic norm at the United Nations. Usually, harsh words among the big powers are expressed behind closed doors, though former US Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin went at it during public council meetings on Syria, the anger spilling over after years of war.

President Trump said last week he had agreed that Beijing is the one China in the US relationship, not Taiwan, but the Haley comment means relations among the big permanent five countries on the Security Council are likely to be in potential roller-coaster mode for the next four years. [CNN]

Relations with China may have to get worse before they can get better.

5 Comments

  1. We need less reassurance of ROK. We need ROK evolution. ROK has 3 citizens for every 2 DPRK ones. “Saving face” is a real east Asian factor. The next time the DPRK sinks a ROK ship or artillery shells an island, ROK needs to punch back disproportionately.

  2. Ban the DPRK at students from Texas, A & M. A hungry DPRK becomes a burden on People’s Republic of China. A hungry DPRK causes strife in their political class. more purges and defections. At the very least, spy on them correctly.

  3. Who is less the nationalist? The daughter of a hawk exploited by religious charlatans or the obese grandson of a country with the Gross Domestic Product of Tanzania? ROK evolution is necessary.

  4. All those who say DPRK is always rational, explain the cost-benefits of killing Kim jung-nam in a airport. Please. Jan 19,2010 Israel got caught (Dubai. Mahmoud Al-Mabhoud). This is the age of the cheap video camera. In a time when street crime happens, why attack in a place saturated with guards and cameras?

  5. Now that the US is friends with Russia again perhaps it’s time to put pressure on them to stop hiring slave labour from NK. That would put a serious dent in Kim’s finances.

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