Regular readers know by now how many keystrokes I’ve spent at this site and in print in various places citing the evidence that sanctions against North Korea were largely a sham until last year, and could work if we enforced them in earnest. Still, the editors of the Washington Post ask a question that even the most strident sanctions advocate must consider:
ONE SCHOOL of North Korea experts has been arguing for some time that sanctions will never induce the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear weapons nor its race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry them to the United States. A good answer is that while they might be right, sanctions are still the best available option — and unlike others, such as negotiations with the regime, they have never been given a robust try. Fortunately, that may be about to change.
I’d go the editors one better. The actions the Justice and Treasury departments began taking earlier this month are the kind of actions what will be necessary to break the link between North Korea and the financial system. We have yet to see the administration begin to impose the kinds of heavy penalties against larger, more connected banks that the Obama administration applied to banks like BNP Paribas in the Iran context, but DOJ has followed the money trail to the correspondent banks, which must be nervous about their compliance by now. There are hints that more is to come.
After waiting in vain for China to apply serious pressure to the Pyongyang regime following President Trump’s first meeting with Xi Jinping, the administration is readying sanctions against a number of Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea, a senior administration official said this week. A sanctions bill on its way through Congress mandates additional steps against North Korean shipping, countries that evade U.N. sanctions and those that employ the slave laborers whom the regime exports to other countries. Still-tougher measures are in a pending Senate bill developed by Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen.
Clearly, sanctions would work far better with Chinese enforcement than without. There is much the U.S. can do without Beijing’s cooperation to shut down Pyongyang’s finance. The new tools in the KIMS Act could vastly raise the pressure on its shipping, on shipping registries, insurers, and ports that fail to inspect North Korean cargo as UNSCR 2270 and 2321 require. There is much less we can do about what crosses the land border, however, and all of the evidence suggests that China isn’t simply negligent in its non-enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang, but willfully weaponizing it.
If the administration aggressively and consistently exploits the new authorities — an open question, given the endless chaos in the White House and gaping personnel holes at the State Department — it might be able, over time, to cut off a substantial part of the flows of hard currency that last year allowed North Korea to increase its trade by nearly 5 percent and that financed $1.7 billion in imports from China in the first half of 2017.
Internationally, there are some encouraging signs that the Trump administration has undertaken and prioritized a campaign of diplomacy to break Pyongyang’s economic lifelines from countries other than China (breaking these links would increasingly isolate Bejing as an enabler of Pyongyang). The problem is that all of this will take time, and here, I think, is where the news is bleak:
The problem is a lack of time. Even successful sanctions campaigns, including that which induced Iran to bargain over its nuclear program, can take years to produce results — and the time North Korea may need to acquire the ability to threaten a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland appears to be rapidly shrinking. The Post reported Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the Kim regime could produce a missile that could reach the U.S. homeland with an atomic warhead in a year, years faster than previously estimated. On Friday, the regime carried out a new test of what appeared to be a long-range ICBM, the second this month.
That is to say, sanctions typically take years to work, and President Trump’s predecessors wasted years that we no longer have. I think sanctions can work, and no evidence I’ve seen disturbs that belief yet, but there is no such thing as guaranteed success for any strategy, which means that every Plan A needs a Plan B, a Plan C, and a Plan D.
Not surprisingly, both the administration and outside experts are debating other options. CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently hinted at a strategy to “separate” the Kim regime from its weapons. If that means regime change, it would require far greater cooperation from a Chinese government that so far has been unwilling to seriously pressure its neighbor.
Here is the first point the Post makes with which I’ll express mild disagreement. But for all the reasons I explained here and here, there is no stable coexistence with a nuclear North Korea. The more Pyongyang perfects its nuclear arsenal, the more risks it will feel free to take, the more it will threaten our core interests, and the more likely war becomes. Brian Myers also argues what’s increasingly difficult to deny — Pyongyang says it seeks to reunify Korea under its control, it acts accordingly, and ultimately, it cannot survive as the poorer Korea. It means to use a nuclear arsenal to extort Seoul into disarmament and capitulation.
Some analysts suggest the United States should take up a Russian-Chinese proposal for a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But history shows that any North Korean commitment to a freeze would be temporary and unreliable, while Washington’s agreement to the deal could introduce a permanent crack into its alliance with South Korea.
Here in America, some of us still fantasize about a deal Pyongyang says it doesn’t want and has no incentive to take. But the only talks Pyongyang is interested in now amount to a “peace process” to secure the lifting of sanctions, the unilateral disarmament of Seoul, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the assertion of de facto editorial and political control over South Korean society.
One helpful proposal comes from the State Department’s former human rights chief, Tom Malinowski, who wrote in a Politico essay that the United States should ramp up efforts to provide the North Korean people with information, including about the far freer and more prosperous lives of South Koreans. Political change in North Korea forced by its own citizens, he says, is more likely than denuclearization by the current regime. That clear-eyed but ultimately hopeful forecast strikes us as sensible.
As I discussed here. What the editors are effectively saying is that if Pyongyang won’t disarm diplomatically, our next-best option may be to induce the overthrow of the North Korean government. That’s right, and furthermore, it’s a threat to bring the one thing to China’s borders that Beijing fears more than anything else — instability. The advantage of this is that if the U.S. demonstrates a capacity to induce instability in North Korea, China will realize that its choices come down to a controlled demolition of the Kim Dynasty, an outbreak of violence and anarchy along its border, or wading into a messy counterinsurgency that will sap domestic political support for Xi Jinping’s rule. Beijing has been perfectly willing to support Pyongyang in threatening core American security interests. Why must we restrain ourselves from threatening Beijing’s interests in that case? Isn’t threatening the interests of hostile powers what deterrence is ultimately about?
We’ve now wasted decades on the fool’s errand of appeasing Pyongyang, and our chances of disarming it voluntarily, which are already low, diminish with each missile or nuclear test. The best outcome we can hope for now is that a coup d’etat removes His Porcine Majesty from the picture and devolves power to men who are willing to negotiate a grand bargain with us. For that bargain to achieve a real and lasting peace, it involves not only nuclear disarmament, the dismantlement of other WMD programs, and the removal of North Korean artillery from within 50 miles of the DMZ, but also fundamental humanitarian reforms without which verification of disarmament will never be possible. And, although there may be a brief transitional period for Pyongyang to remain a distinct political entity as it reforms gradually, in the end, the Korean crisis will only end when the Korean people themselves decide the time and manner for becoming a nation once again.