Kim Jong-un’s regime has been systematically sanctioned since early this calendar year. Recent measures build on years of international sanctions on North Korea. But law-abiding nations need to keep up the pressure on the Kim family, even while not losing sight of essential political goals of U.S.-South Korean strategy. Over the next six months or so we should be able to discern a growing strain on Pyongyang that could make Kim a bit more pliable when it comes to committing egregious actions.
Explaining the first-ever, human rights-based sanctions on the North Korean leader, a senior U.S. official accused Kim of “intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions” of his own people. With this dubious achievement, Kim joins a pantheon of villains that includes Al Qaeda’s Bin Laden, Syria’s Assad, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Serbia’s Milosevic, and Libya’s Qaddafi.
The sanctions have been piling up all year, ever since Kim decided to conduct a fourth nuclear test on January 6th. The core idea is to squeeze him directly in order to prevent him from taking further steps toward deploying nuclear-tipped missiles.
The Republic of Korea sparked the series of ascending sanctions when it unilaterally suspended the Kaesong Industrial Complex that opened in 2004 as a business park of peaceful cooperation. Seoul then added new restrictions on North Korean goods, businesses, and vessels seeking harbor in South Korean ports.
In early March, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2270, the fifth time the international body has sanctioned North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs (and the sixth time the UN has imposed sanctions on Pyongyang).
Meanwhile, consistent with a law enacted in February (H.R. 757) and known as the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, the Obama administration has added several new types of punitive measures. Among these actions, on June 1st, the U.S. Department of the Treasury listed North Korea as a “primary money laundering concern” under the USA PATRIOT Act. The section 311 provision is what the United States resorted to in 2005 to clamp down on $25 million of North Korean funds in Banco Delta Asia based in Macau. Coupled with this month’s designations, some 161 North Korean entities are now blacklisted by the United States.
These are the most serious sanctions ever imposed on North Korea. The question, however, is not whether they are severe, but whether they will change North Korean behavior.
Clearly, Pyongyang isn’t altering its bellicose rhetoric. The latest sanctions are “an open declaration of war,” declared North Korea’s Foreign Ministry. While is an oft-used refrain, like the boy who cries wolf, let us not forget that this is also a regime that hacked Sony Pictures over a satirical movie.
Blacklisting a leader is the opposite of awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize. A personal designation offers powerful symbolism, but scant new leverage to dissuade an autocrat from pursuing a nuclear program he deems vital for his regime survival.
Tightening the purse strings applies pressure on Kim, and the effects should start to be felt within about six months. Thus, by the end of the calendar year we should have a broad sense of the sanctions’ impact.
At some point next year, to avert a predictable train wreck, policy must migrate from sanctions to strategy. After all, sanctions are only means to an end, and they can be “unprecedented” without necessarily achieving their intended purpose.
Likewise, North Korea provocations and verbal assaults are also only means to larger ends. Kim wants to preserve his power and the system that arbitrarily elevates only his family to command. He wants nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against outside intervention. Byungjin is about wanting his cake and eating it, too: in this case, it’s about Kim wishing to be an acknowledged as head of a nuclear-weapon state in tandem with a thriving economy.
Strategically, Kim no doubt wants U.S. power to recede across the Pacific, in order to boost his leverage over South Korea. In his most hallucinatory dreams, Kim may even wish to forcefully unify the peninsula under his tyranny.
Wishes are no substitute for a rigorous plan. Mr. Kim, perhaps lacking candid advisors (a byproduct of executions and exiles), may have difficulty judging fact from fiction. This reality may well result in the mother of all miscalculations, or at least the worst since Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950 on the erroneous assumption that the alliance would fold. Statecraft and strategy are about harnessing all policy tools in a sensible plan to achieve a clearly defined objective.
In the short term, the ROK-U.S. alliance is ratcheting up pressure as part of an overall attempt to assert both painful isolation and hopeful engagement to dissuade North Korea from further major provocations.
Sanctions lacking Chinese enforcement, of course, provide an endless safety valve for Kim Jong-un. Alas, China’s pressure will always be heavily restrained in order to minimize the risk of instability. This could be more likely now that Seoul has announced the decision to move forward over the next two years to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seongju County, 180 miles south of Seoul. Paradoxically, China may also be more resigned to the limited missile defense system now that there is less opportunity to exploit Seoul’s previous hesitancy on the subject.
In the mid-to-long run, North Korea’s problem may go away because of an implosion from within. North Korea’s songbun system remains precarious. A “legitimacy spiral” is apt to develop because of two diverging trends. On the one hand, Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of political and military power ensures there is no number two inside a nuclear-armed North Korea. On the other hand, Kim’s vulnerabilities are surely growing from within, as freer markets and the flow of information erode North Korea’s traditional hierarchy of authority.
Forecasting specific events and timelines in international relations is beyond human ability. Yet surely there is ample justification to judge North Korea’s current system as unsustainable. Change will come, even if no one can predict how or when it will occur. It is likely to be incremental, like water wearing down a stone. But it is also possible that it arrive with a thunderclap of sudden and violent regime change.
North Korea’s fourth nuclear test has set in motion an escalatory process. But what goes up must come down. Kim Jong-un is certain to keep building nuclear and missile programs and committing provocations. But ultimately he faces a choice about whether his proliferation gambit is worth the cumulative weight of sanctions. He may eventually look for a diplomatic off-ramp that freezes his current programs in place.
A policy of strategic pressure needs to be mindful of the ultimate political objectives of North Korea policy. Pyongyang has a vote and may bring down the entire house of cards in a hard landing. But the ultimate aim of the United States and South Korea must remain seeking to use sanctions for a larger goal. Specifically, at some point, if our policy is to be successful, we must move from sanctions and pressure back to diplomacy and engagement. Assuming we make it through another tumultuous cycle of sanctions and provocations, someone will have to steer us toward a more manageable political solution to better manage the risk of a modern war in Northeast Asia.