North Korea isn’t stopping. Whether the powerful nuclear device it detonated Sunday really is compatible with an intercontinental ballistic missile matters far less than the fact that the Kim Jong Un regime now stands on the verge of nuclear breakout. Simply put, Kim is ever closer to being able to kill millions of people outside North Korea, not least Americans.
Which is precisely the message behind Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests — with more threatened for as early as this weekend — and Kim’s bluster barrage over the last several months.
Kim is driven by a systemic need to overturn the unfavorable equation on the Korean peninsula: The backward totalitarian North versus a prosperous and pleasant South. South Korea’s mere existence poses an existential threat to Pyongyang. Kim’s ultimate goal is to evict U.S. troops from the South through nuclear blackmail, then, through graduated escalation, isolate and bully risk-averse Seoul. Pyongyang’s latest actions take it a leap closer to achieving this goal.
The dangerous situation we’re facing was entirely predictable. For more than 20 years, policymakers of various political colors on both sides of the Pacific have treated North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat with condescension buttressed by dithery diplomacy. Seoul and Washington have alternated between halfhearted sanctions and sending billions of dollars of aid into Pyongyang’s coffers, at times even simultaneously sanctioning North Korea and subsidizing it. The effect has been wildly successful — for North Korea. Pyongyang has yet to see any advantage in giving up its carrot-and-stick nuclear posturing.
Full-throttled financial sanctions are America’s best and only option.
Yet not all is lost. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said this week at the Security Council, the “incremental approach” and “half measures” of the past must be replaced with the “strongest sanctions.” However, if the sanctions are strong only on paper, nothing will change. The U.S. and its allies have to invest time and resources to enforce them. Violators must be met with biting financial consequences. The U.S. is uniquely positioned to punish violators, thanks to the strength of the dollar.
The baffling fact is that the United States has never exerted the full force of its sanction power against Pyongyang. Until 2016, U.S. sanctions against North Korea were weaker in kind and degree than those against Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo — states that pose no national security threat to the U.S. They were also far weaker than sanctions against Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Balkan states.
Even since 2016, Washington has held back from doing all it could do against North Korea. Self-deterred by exaggerated fears of more North Korean provocation and Chinese economic retaliation, the U.S. has yet to fine the largest of the Chinese banks and state companies that are in blatant violation of U.S. laws and U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Pyongyang.
And yet money talks, as we saw in the curtailing of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As the United States fined international companies and banks that continued to do prohibited business with Iran, Tehran — increasingly isolated — made the decision to return to negotiations. In just one example, the U.S. fined France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, $8.9 billion for violating Iran sanctions (and those against Sudan and Cuba as well). The bank pleaded guilty, accepted the fine and withdrew from its Iran ties rather than be blocked out of the U.S. dollar system. In June, the U.S. put pressure on the Bank of Dandong, a small Chinese bank that serves as a dollar conduit for North Korean activities, but no fine or threatened block of the magnitude of the BNP Paribas action has been imposed on Chinese entities.
Through serious and sustained financial constriction, Washington could compel Kim to modify his behavior — freeze his nuclear and missile programs, open up his country and dismantle his gulags. Full denuclearization would not happen until Kim, under financial stress, could no longer placate his generals and faced the specter of regime collapse. Throughout the process, Washington must communicate to Kim and his cronies that there is a way out. Reform or abdicate. (Posh exile isn’t what Kim Jong Un deserves, but it would be a small price to pay for liberating the Korean peninsula.)
Pyongyang, although far from suicidal, needs to menace Washington if it has any hope of prevailing over Seoul. If the U.S. were to cave in and abandon South Korea, nothing would be resolved and the risk of another war started by the North would only increase. (The last time the U.S. withdrew troops from South Korea, in 1949, there was war the next year; it claimed tens of thousands of American lives. This time, nuclear weapons could be in play.)
Full-throttled financial sanctions — in the face of obfuscation, evasion, provocations and disingenuous negotiations — are America’s best and only option, short of military action. Temporary deals followed by premature relaxation of sanctions would only bring fake peace to the Korean peninsula and buy Pyongyang time and money. Give real peace — and an end to the Kim regime — a chance.
Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor of Korean studies and an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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