Amid the plethora of security threats the world is facing today, North Korea, with its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, long-range missile test on Feb. 7 and firing of short range missiles in late March, has been doing all it can in order to ensure that it gets its share of attention. Its ICBM program has made significant strides, and it is also making progress towards a miniaturized nuclear warhead and operationalizing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability, which would give Pyongyang a survivable nuclear deterrent. And the regime’s proliferation activities, particularly with Syria and Iran, have posed an even broader threat.
Little that Washington has attempted over the past 20-plus years has halted North Korean progress, including the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.” Pyongyang believes that its legitimacy as an independent state depends upon its nuclear weapons capability, and has thus proven impervious to inducements to give up such a capability. It has become increasingly emboldened due to the belief that its nuclear weapons will deter any muscular action against it, and in the (to date correct) assumption that China, by far its largest trade partner, has an interest in its continued survival and will therefore not allow sanctions to destabilize it.
China does not want to see a unified Korean peninsula under Seoul’s governance and aligned with the United States on its border. (And for the same reason, Russia does not want to see such an eventuality.) Beijing also seeks to maintain an independent and unpredictable North Korea as a source of leverage over Washington, particularly since China’s neighborhood is filled with American partners.
South Korea, for its part, has come to the conclusion that its engagement policy with the North has failed, as made clear by President Park Geun-hye’s February speech to the South Korean National Assembly, which marked a fundamental shift of South Korean policy towards the North. Ms. Park’s speech has taken Pyongyang out of the driver’s seat by signaling that the ground rules have changed, and Ms. Park has moved to cut off all sources of cash to Pyongyang over which Seoul has any control. The U.S. needs to follow suit — the status quo will no longer suffice.
While it is a positive sign that China worked with the United States in drafting the sanctions recently put into place by the U.N. (which are the harshest set of sanctions the U.N. has placed on Pyongyang to date), past history (as well as current levels of activity at the Chinese-North Korean border, which appear fairly normal) indicate that the chances that the Chinese will aggressively implement those sanctions are extremely low unless China is forced to change its strategic calculus. Washington and its allies need to convince China that North Korea is far more of a liability than a strategic asset.
The evidence that this is the case is not difficult to find. The North’s actions have spurred closer cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea, and are a major reason why Washington was able to press Tokyo and Seoul to finally reach an agreement on the “comfort women” issue — part of the bitter historical legacy that has bedeviled past attempts at cooperation. They have also impelled Seoul to finally agree to deploy the THAAD missile defense system, which China has long strenuously opposed out of the belief that it would reduce China’s nuclear deterrent. Further, they increase the risk that Japan will at some point choose to acquire nuclear weapons.
Washington can help to further bring home the message that Pyongyang is a strategic liability by ensuring that future joint American-South Korean military exercises occur in the Yellow Sea not far from China’s coast.
Cutting off the cash
Harsh and rigorously enforced sanctions that target all who do business with North Korea need to not only cut off the North Korean regime from as much hard cash as possible, but to demonstrate the risk to China’s already-strained banking system if it allows Chinese banks, businesses and middlemen to do business as usual with Pyongyang. Recently enacted congressional legislation has prodded the White House to begin the process of cutting off the Kim regime’s access to hard currency, and targets a broad range of activities, including money laundering; narcotics and human trafficking; the importation of luxury goods; anything that might be used to strengthen Pyongyang’s military machine or system of internal repression; and those involved in the trade of coal, steel, aluminum, graphite and precious metals (Chinese involvement in North Korea’s mineral and extractive industries is extensive).
Two recent studies have illustrated ways in which strong, targeted sanctions can be effective, even in the face of China seeking to minimize their impact. One, by the Fletcher Security Review, details the extensive role played by Chinese banks and middlemen in enabling North Korea’s illicit trade in a large number of areas, and notes that the U.S. Treasury Department has substantial coercive powers to shape the behavior of Chinese banks and financial institutions.
The other study, by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, maps out the chain of command, structures and mechanisms of the Kim regime, and thus sheds light on how targeted sanctions can be most effective in limiting both the North’s ability to threaten the outside world and its ability to continue to systematically brutalize its own people. North Korea is a clear case in which security and humanitarian concerns are interrelated, and the Kim regime’s human rights record should be placed front and center in American diplomatic activity.
Washington needs to demonstrate a commitment to maintain support for sustained, effective, cooperative action on the part of the international community, in the face of Chinese (and Russian) balking, North Korean threats and provocations, etc. This will require an enormous amount of effort, but absent a clear display of resolve and leadership on the part of Washington, China has little reason to seriously cooperate with sanctions. The alternative is to continue down the same path we have been on, with potentially disastrous results.
Perhaps most importantly, American moral leadership has historically played a powerful role in facing down totalitarian threats in the past, from fascism to communism. In order to do so again, Washington needs to display a greater moral self-confidence than has been the case under the current White House administration.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who was so inspired by Ronald Reagan’s unabashed moral defense of human freedom in the face of Soviet totalitarianism, has lamented what he sees as America’s “tragic loss of moral self-confidence,” asking “When did America forget that it is America?” We need to regain such a sense of national purpose, a sense, in Reagan’s words, of “spiritual commitment, … belief and resolve [grounded in] humility before God,” which he saw as “ultimately the source of America’s strength as a nation.” Without it, we cripple our ability to meet the very great challenges that face us in the international arena, of which North Korea is but one.
• Paul Coyer is a research professor at the Institute for World Politics. He is a contributor on foreign policy, with a focus on Eurasia, for Forbes, and is a contributing editor for Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, published by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and The Philos Project.