Since 1994, North Korea has used negotiations to buy time and to extort diplomatic concessions and economic assistance from the international community. Now it may only be a matter of time before North Korea’s propaganda gets real.
Pyongyang’s recent ICBM tests could transform the strategic theater. There are growing concerns and skepticism that the international community has no good policy options to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. However, it still has more things to do. Most important at this moment is sanctions.
First, the international community has to implement all existing sanctions on North Korea fully and effectively. According to a report released by the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea in February, the “implementation [of sanctions] remains insufficient and highly inconsistent.” Some countries have maintained permissive and accommodating stances toward Pyongyang’s unlawful and brazen acts such as the assassination of North Korean leader Kim’s Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.
Such stances could allow North Korea to entrench its global business networks and increase their sophistication and scale. North Korea shamelessly made a global appeal for 192 U.N. member states to reconsider enforcing U.N. sanctions in May. Japan and like-minded countries should organize and carry out a campaign to urge member states to seriously recognize the threat posed by North Korea and eliminate its illicit worldwide activities through the full implementation of the U.N. sanctions.
Second, the international community should also apply new and tougher sanctions. One of the most effective is secondary sanctions against those who do business with Pyongyang. In 2005, the United States designated Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank, to be a “primary money laundering concern.” The designation required U.S. banks to ensure that its customers were not conducting business transactions with Banco Delta Asia. The bank was frozen out the U.S. financial system overnight. In addition to this direct effect, other non-U.S. financial institutions severed their ties with North Korea, not wanting to risk entanglement in North Korean illicit activities and face possible expulsion from the globally dominant U.S. financial market. That had a significant impact on the Kim regime.
In June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated China’s Bank of Dandong a primary money-laundering concern. More banks should be targeted if it’s found they have illicit dealings with North Korea.
Also important is global action against North Korean “guest workers.” More than 50,000 North Koreans work in China, Russia, South East Asia and elsewhere with the aim of circumventing U.N. sanctions and earning hard currency. The host countries should shut down that flow of cash into the North Korean dictator’s pockets.
To really pressure North Korea, China can cut off its oil supply. In 2003, China closed an oil pipeline supplying North Korea for three days. A few month later, North Korea joined the six-party talks. An article by the Global Times, a Communist Party-affiliated newspaper, in April argued that Beijing should limit its oil exports if North Korea conducts another nuclear test. Since then, North Korea has yet to conduct a nuclear weapon test.
Without Chinese oil, North Korea could not survive on its own. Beijing worries about the impact a collapse of the North Korean economy and the ensuing instability would have on China, such as massive influx of refugees from North Korea. It also worries that it eventually could result in a final act of suicidal nuclear defiance by Kim.
Beijing is also worried that its influence on Pyongyang might be further eroded as Kim’s regime has been trying to reduce its dependence on China through an expansion of trade with Russia and Southeast Asia. Russia appears to have replaced China as the top supplier of jet fuel to North Korea following China’s suspension of such exports in 2013. If China restricts its oil exports to North Korea, Russia may fill the gap. These are China’s dilemmas and present a challenge for the international community in its effort to work together toward denuclearization. In a nutshell, the probability of the next nuclear test depends upon Kim’s calculation on this dilemma.
China’s trade with North Korea rose more than 10 percent in the first half of 2017 from a year earlier. Earlier China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that as a neighboring country of North Korea, China has maintained “normal” economic relations and trade. However, Beijing’s policy to decouple the denuclearization issue from its relationship with North Korea is no longer relevant and even undermines China’s security interests. Skepticism about China’s pressure on North Korea is also increasing in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Beijing is beginning to view the Trump administration’s policy of pressuring North Korea as inconsistent. U.S. President Donald Trump once said that “all options are on the table,” and had put on a show of force by sending the Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the waters off the Korea Peninsula, but that military pressure soon subsided.
Although it is important to apply continued economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, that will not be enough to compel the Kim regime to freeze and eventually abandon its nuclear program. Military pressure will also be critical.
The U.S. should show its determination and capability as the strongest military power in the world to Kim until negotiations are underway.
In this regard, almost all experts argue that a preemptive strike against North Korea is virtually untenable unless a North Korean attack is eminent. This observation is reasonable and widely held, but such assertions by smart pundits are unhelpful for levying meaningful pressure on Kim. They must recognize that the U.S. is playing a game of chicken with a ruthless dictator. To eliminate an impending threat, some risk must be taken. Otherwise, the threat will become increasingly bigger as the lesson of the 1938 Munich Agreement shows. That’s the dilemma we are facing now.
If Kim sniffs an element of bluff or a bravado in the U.S. effort to apply military pressure, it will never work. Then China won’t draw the short straw by taking tougher actions against North Korea. The strategic cooperative posture emerged at the summit meeting between Trump and Xi in April turned out a short-lived illusion.
Now we face the danger of Kim’s increasing military confidence, which raises the risks of increased belligerence. The international community must be united in increasing diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Pyongyang. These are an essential and minimum prerequisite for any future negotiations with North Korea.
Masahiro Kohara is a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Law and Politics. Previously he served as a career diplomat in the Foreign Ministry.