- - Monday, August 22, 2016


This January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test. Though not significantly larger than the previous tests, it triggered a stronger international response than any of its first three, the result of an international consensus that stronger, more comprehensive sanctions must be imposed for serial violations of its agreements, United Nations resolutions and U.S. law.

Resolution 2270, approved in February, goes beyond previous U.N. actions by increasing financial sanctions, expanding required inspections of North Korean cargo and targeting key exports. The resolution is the first instance of U.N. targeting of North Korean commercial trade, including mineral exports.

What triggered this international consensus was not just cumulative anger and frustration over North Korea’s repeated violations. It was also the realization that diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang was no longer a viable solution, combined with heightened concern over North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat and a greater willingness to push China for more extensive sanctions.

The United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. and other countries have begun to implement long-overdue punitive measures to enforce laws, curtail proliferation and raise the cost for Pyongyang’s continued defiance of the international community. Imposing the enhanced punitive measures is a welcome step toward sharpening North Korea’s choice between its nuclear program and economic isolation.

Moreover, the augmented sanctions will fulfill near-term objectives of enforcing laws, imposing penalties on those who violate them, and strengthening measures to constrain the importation and proliferation of prohibited nuclear and missile technology. That all of these measures could have been implemented years ago is testament to a collective lethargy about confronting North Korean belligerence.

The utility of the sanctions, however, depends on complete and forceful implementation, particularly by China. Beijing agreed to the tougher U.N. measures, and Chinese banks and businesses on the border with North Korea appear to be acting accordingly.

However, previous Chinese backsliding on sanctions enforcement raises doubts as to how long Beijing will remain onboard. After each of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, Beijing temporarily tightened trade and bank transactions with Pyongyang but eventually became lackadaisical with enforcement, severely undermining the sanctions.

Beijing’s reluctance to strongly pressure its ally gives Pyongyang a feeling of impunity that encourages it toward further belligerence. China’s timidity, and the international community’s willingness to accommodate it, only ensures a continual repetition of the cycle with ever-increasing risk of escalation and potential catastrophe.

For years, the Obama administration was not fully enforcing U.S. laws and regulations on North Korean sanctions. Rather than using its full authority to target North Korean violators, the administration pulled its punches. This timid incrementalism frustrated Congress to the point that lawmakers passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in February to induce presidential punishment.

Certainly, the rhetoric has changed. After years of extolling China for assisting U.S. policy toward North Korea, the Obama administration now criticizes Beijing for being unhelpful. But the administration has not included a single Chinese entity on the U.S. sanctions list for facilitating North Korean violations. It is past time for the U.S. to impose secondary sanctions against Chinese violators.

At present, any offer of economic inducements for North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal is ill-conceived with little chance of success. Little change will occur until North Korea is effectively sanctioned and China becomes concerned about the consequences of Pyongyang’s actions and Beijing’s own obstructionism. Washington needs to stay the course on sanctions while increasing China’s carrying cost for appeasing North Korea.

Indeed, Washington must sharpen the choice for North Korea by raising the risk and cost for its actions as well as for those of its enablers — particularly Beijing — who have willingly facilitated the regime’s prohibited programs and illicit activities and condoned its human rights violations.

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea.

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