With his nuclear and missile tests this year, Kim Jong-un has signaled the United States that he is accelerating North Korea’s program to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead that could strike the United States.
Achieving this within the 2018-2020 period is a realistic prospect. North Korea then would have an arsenal of nuclear warheads mounted on long-range and intermediate-range missiles — and the status of a full-fledged nuclear weapons power.
Since 2006 the U.S. response to successive North Korean tests has been to go to the U.N. Security Council and repeatedly negotiate the imposition of multiple sanctions on Pyongyang. There is a consensus that these sanctions have been ineffective, as North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs and the livelihoods of North Korea’s communist elite appear undamaged.
This process has become a pretense. Security Council members amend, modify and add items, knowing that the new versions will have no more effect on North Korea than previous versions. Analysts agree that China has not enforced most of the sanctions to which it agreed.
The new sanctions approved by the Security Council in February 2016 will not change this situation. A careful read reveals limits and qualifications to key sanctions, opportunities for North Korean concealment of prohibited exports and imports and no restrictions on third-country banks that do business with North Korea. Implementation continues to rely on China’s willingness to enforce.
The challenge for the United States is to develop a strategy that opens up a better prospect of Security Council members enacting and implementing sanctions that put real pressure on North Korea to alter its nuclear and missile programs before it succeeds in developing an ICBM with a nuclear warhead. Time is running out.
A potent U.S. strategy would start by introducing a resolution in the Security Council mandating that U.N. member states cease providing oil and natural gas to North Korea and not assist other states that seek to provide North Korea with oil or natural gas. A cutoff of energy imports would quickly cause an economic crisis in North Korea.
The problem is China, which supplies North Korea with most of its oil. A U.S. resolution would force the Chinese government to make a fundamental choice regarding sanctions on North Korea. Most experts appear to believe, probably correctly, that China would veto a U.S. resolution.
However, the United States could employ explanations and incentives that would make a Chinese veto more difficult:
Deal with China’s reputed fear of a North Korean collapse by asserting to the Chinese that North Korean leaders would make a rational decision to start making concessions rather than allow energy shortages to generate an internal crisis.
Offer the Chinese acceptance of China’s long-standing proposal to resume Six Party Talks, and offer to work with China to develop common proposals in renewed talks.
U.S. strategy also must involve similar proposals and offers to Russia. Don’t ignore Russia.
A U.S. resolution, even if vetoed by China, still could create gains for the United States, as it could:
Bring the U.S.-China discussion-debate into the open to a growing segment of Chinese public opinion, which has turned critical of North Korea.
Inform Chinese of China’s energy subsidies to North Korea.
Inform Chinese of U.S. explanations and incentives to China.
Produce a more robust debate within the Chinese government, sparked by voices urging tougher measures against North Korea, including a cutoff of oil.
In short, set the future for more intense Chinese debates.
The resolution would create a test for China in its relations with South Korea. China has wooed South Korea in recent years, but President Park Geun-hye has been angry over China’s lack of support for her penalties on North Korea in 2016. China would face a dilemma in its relations with South Korea in deciding whether or not to veto a U.S. resolution. South Koreans would gain a clearer perception of the possibilities and limits of security cooperation with China.
The United States would gain by introducing a resolution to cut off North Korea oil and natural gas imports. Realistically, it is unlikely that the Obama administration or its successor will introduce such a resolution. Time is running out for the current brand of U.N. sanctions, and North Korea probably will close the door on them by 2018-2020.
• Larry Niksch was a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service until 2010. He is an ICAS fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and teaches East Asian Security at George Washington University. The views expressed are his own.
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