North Korea gave President Obama a going-away present just hours after he ended his trip to East Asia by testing a nuclear weapon. This is North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the fourth to take place during the Obama administration, and it is by all indications the strongest yet.
The North’s first nuclear test in 2006 was a bomb with a yield was estimated to be less than one kiloton. The latest device produced an estimated yield of 10 kilotons–an impressive increase over the past decade. And North Korea isn’t done yet. It is also miniaturizing nuclear warheads and developing long-range ballistic missiles that may already be capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States and that, within a few years, could hit Washington and New York.
So we are now confronted with the spectacle of the world’s most closed and oppressive regime, led by a third-generation dictator who is willing to kill his own uncle, becoming ever more dangerous. Kim Jong-un may well be seeking to achieve North Korea’s long-sought goal of decoupling the U.S. from South Korea by credibly threatening Washington with nuclear annihilation should it come to the aid of an embattled Seoul.
What is to be done?
President Obama deserves some credit for acting against type and not trying to revive the failed Six Party Talks that the Bush administration pursued in a Quixotic attempt to get Pyongyang to give up its cherished nuclear program. Obama also deserves credit for winning South Korea’s support for a THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) missile system–although deployment, which is not scheduled to start until next year, should be speeded up in light of the growing North Korean threat. Finally, Obama deserves credit for convincing the UN Security Council earlier this year to adopt its most stringent sanctions yet on North Korea and for signing the toughest sanctions legislation on North Korea ever passed by Congress.
The problem is that the new sanctions aren’t really being enforced. China is the big stumbling block: Beijing doesn’t much like North Korea’s nuclear program, but it will not do anything that could destabilize the North Korean regime. The last thing in the world China wants is U.S. and South Korean troops advancing together toward its southern border. The last time this happened, in 1950, China sent hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” into South Korea to fight United Nations forces. Thus, China has signaled its displeasure with Pyongyang by imposing a few sanctions for a time, but then it’s back to business as usual.
The administration is dreaming if it thinks China will reconsider its fundamental strategic interests regarding North Korea of its own volition. The only way that China might conceivably take a tougher line–and perhaps not even then–is if the U.S. can raise the costs to China of inaction. Fortunately, there is an instrument to do just that: The North Korea Policy and Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2016 gave the U.S. government authority to impose “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms doing business with North Korea. This is the same type of sanctions authority that imposed crippling costs on Iran and brought Tehran to the bargaining table. If Obama hadn’t been willing to prematurely lift the sanctions, and if he hadn’t effectively lifted the threat of air strikes, Tehran might even have agreed to a better deal that ended rather than simply froze its nuclear program.
In the case of North Korea, however, Obama hasn’t actually utilized his sanctions authority. Not one Chinese firm has yet faced secondary sanctions for doing business with North Korea.
That needs to change ASAP. And that is only the beginning of the punishment that the U.S. can and should impose on the North. The Bush administration briefly made Pyongyang holler by adding it to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and by imposing sanctions on the Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank that has been a money laundry for the North. But then Bush foolishly lifted the sanctions in the hopes of getting concessions in Six-Party Talks, and they have never been re-imposed. It’s high time to re-impose those sanctions as part of a more ambitious effort to choke off the money flow to the North that provides Kim Jong-un and other elites with luxury items while their people starve. Joshua Stanton has chapter and verse on his must-read blog, freekorea.us.
For too long, American officials have bought into the narrative that we are helpless to stop North Korea’s bad behavior. It certainly is not easy to constrain this rogue regime as long as it has a lifeline to Beijing. But the truth is that we haven’t tried hard enough. We need to squeeze Pyongyang hard enough that the pips squeak.