Over two decades of ineffective policies have failed to prevent North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them to distant cities, but while the situation may appear bleak, the U.S. is by no means out of options.
This year, the North Korean military has successfully tested a batch of new short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as an intercontinental ballistic missile, advancing its weapons development program at an accelerated rate and escalating the threat to the U.S. and its allies.
The North has demonstrated over the course of multiple tests that it has operational nuclear weapons, and after five tests, it likely has the ability to pair a nuclear payload with a ballistic missile.
Having announced the abandonment of the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea is one of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which involves economic sanctions, military deterrence, and diplomatic pressure in an effort to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The administration is also strongly encouraging China to increase pressure on the North Korean regime.
“Right now, the maximum pressure policy is anything but,” Bruce Klingner, the former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea branch and now a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, told the Daily Caller News Foundation, explaining that despite its tough rhetoric, “the Trump administration has not yet distinguished its policy from that of its predecessors.”
There are indications, though, that the president is determined to address the North Korean threat with hard-line policies, and he has a number of decent options to choose from.
“For all the talk of this being the land of lousy options, I think there are a lot more options than we usually discuss,” Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, an international security expert with deep knowledge of Asia at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF. “We have to realize that the United States has a really remarkable range of powerful instruments at our potential disposal in the world we currently live in, for all the talk of U.S. decline.”
“The best options are ensuring we have sufficient deterrence and defenses against North Korea’s military threats, but also increasing pressure on North Korea,” Klingner explained.
The Trump administration could significantly increase pressure on North Korea by pushing international actors to uphold United Nations resolutions and fully implement sanctions, enforcing U.S. law, and targeting North Korean business activities, including so-called legitimate operations.
U.N. reports show that global enforcement of international sanctions leaves much to be desired. Andrea Berger, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, called the North Korean sanctions regime a “house without foundations,” claiming that “not a single component of the U.N. sanctions regime against North Korea currently enjoys robust international implementation.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley put the world on notice last week, and this week, the Department of State extended sanctions on Sudan due to a failure to properly uphold U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, which the current administration considers the “top security concern.”
The Obama administration announced plans to lift sanctions on Sudan in January, but the Trump administration has delayed those plans in response to Sudan’s continued cooperation with North Korea in violation of international sanctions. “North Korea has not traditionally been part of the conversation over the circumstances in which those restrictions would be revoked,” Berger wrote in a new Arms Control Wonk blog post, adding, “It is now.”
“This move would signal to others that it is serious about restricting the US trading privileges of North Korean partners worldwide,” she added.
While this is a good start, there is more that can be done.
More importantly, though, the U.S. has been hesitant to uphold its own laws and defend the U.S. financial system from those entities who abuse the system. “The people who play with North Korea shouldn’t be able to do business in the American dollar sphere,” Eberstadt explained.
“There is a widespread misperception that North Korea is maxed out on sanctions and that there is nothing more we can do,” Klingner explained, “The U.S. has a number of North Korean and Chinese entities that we could be sanctioning, but we have been pulling our punches.”
North Korea is not, as others, including former President Barack Obama, have said, the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. There are a number of international actors supporting the North Korean regime that have yet to come under fire. “If you talk to people who work sanctions in the government,” Klingner said, “They will say, ‘I have a list in the drawer of Chinese and North Korean entities that I have got evidence for,’ but they have been told not to sanction them.”
The Obama administration engaged in a practice known as “timid incrementalism.”
“You pull a few entities out of the drawer, you sanction them after each North Korean provocation, and then you put the list back in the drawer,” Klingner commented, “It’s like a mayor saying, ‘I’ve got evidence on fifty bank robbers, and I’m going to boldly arrest one for every time a bank is robbed.’”
The Trump administration, while progress has been slow, sanctioned the Bank of Dandong, a Chinese bank that has been laundering money for the North Korean regime, two weeks ago, marking the first time the U.S. has blacklisted a Chinese bank in about ten years. The Trump administration appears to be preparing to come down hard on China with additional secondary sanctions against Chinese firms illegally engaging North Korea, but it is crucial that the U.S. engage the proper pressure points.
The Center for Advanced Defense released a detailed report in June concluding that North Korea’s overseas trade networks are “ripe for disruption,” determining that the country’s overseas financing and procurement system, through which North Korea obtains funds and supplies for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, is centralized, limited, and vulnerable.
“Although economic coercion has been ineffective in persuading North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, this does not mean it cannot work,” the research group assessed, “Targeted enforcement actions against key nodes within the system can have the effect of impacting multiple networks across multiple countries simultaneously, removing key functions, such as individuals or entities specialized in illicit finance and procurement, who cannot be easily replaced.”
While China has over 5,000 companies engaged in trade with North Korea, a small number of interconnected firms account for the majority of the trading, limiting the spaces in which North Korea can conduct illicit activities. By enforcing U.S. laws, the U.S. has the ability to target these entities.
“The vast majority of all financial transactions in the world are denominated in dollars, including China’s, including North Korea’s,” Klingner said, adding, “That means they go through U.S. banks in the United States, either through their own accounts or correspondent accounts.”
“Therefore, U.S. law applies,” he explained.
Targeting individuals and firms in violation of sanctions may also convince others to change course. When the U.S. sanctioned another Chinese bank over a decade ago, around two dozen entities, including several countries, severed ties with North Korea. Bank of China actually defied the Chinese government and reduced engagement to avoid sanctions. China National Petroleum Corp, a leading Chinese oil and gas company, reportedly suspended petrol sales to the North in late June because “it’s not worth the risks.”
Raising the carrying cost for being North Korea’s primary supporter forces China and others to act rather than wash their hands of any responsibility.
The U.S. and its partners also have the ability to pressure North Korea by driving away legitimate business partners, convincing companies that they do not want their reputation associated with crimes against humanity. This process has already begun to a certain extent, according to Klingner, and it has led to a running list of entities that are pulling back on even legitimate business with North Korea, tightening the economic noose.
There is an argument to be made that legitimate North Korean business activities should also be subject to international pressure.
“If the North Korean regime is a criminal enterprise, and I think one can make the case that it is a terrorist, extortionist, racketeering setup, I think we’ve got a lot of good arguments for having a much more broad rather than a much more narrow view of financial penalties,” Eberstadt explained.
Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, together with four other senators, introduced legislation Thursday that would, according to a statement from Gardner’s office, “ban any entity that does business with North Korea or its enablers from using the United States financial system.”
The North Koreans “are smart and very enterprising, and they have had ten years to learn to duck and dodge,” Eberstadt said, “We haven’t done anything like the sort of homework we should have to keep up with North Korea’s financial activities.”
“It’s not a hopeless task though,” he added.
While pressuring the regime is unlikely to immediately force Kim Jong-un to lay down his nuclear arms, it reminds the regime that there will never be a time, as long as North Korea continues to cling to its weapons in violation of international restrictions, that it will not be in pain.
“You never want to abandon [denuclearization] as your goal,” Klingner explained, adding,” If you abandon it, you are accepting North Korea into the brotherhood of nuclear nations, then you have just abandoned the nonproliferation treaty, you’ve just abandoned arms control.”
“That sends dangerous signals to other nuclear aspirants,” he added.