By Bruce Klingner, Dec. 15, 2017
North Korea’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can unambiguously threaten the entire American homeland, along with previous test of a hydrogen bomb, have energized debate over how the US should respond to those tests and President Trump’s overall policy toward Pyongyang.
Pyongyang’s test of the Hwasong-15 was the first missile launch in 75 days. Supporters of President Trump had asserted that Pyongyang had been deterred from further launches by the president’s resolute threats. Alternatively, advocates for resuming diplomatic engagement with North Korea asserted the launch hiatus was a “signal” that Pyongyang sought diplomatic engagement and wished to resume negotiations with the United States.
North Korea’s launch undercut both theories. The most likely explanation for the gap in testing is more anodyne: North Korea typically launches fewer missiles in the fourth quarter of each year (approximately one-fifth of what it flies in earlier quarters). If past is prologue, we can expect an uptick in launches early in 2018, including a long-range ICBM test over Japan and far into the Pacific Ocean.
Uncertainty Over How the US Will Respond
The imminence of North Korea’s crossing of the ICBM threshold has triggered greater advocacy for a US preventive military attack to keep North Korea from attaining its objective. There have been public comments by the president and other senior officials suggesting that the US is contemplating a military strike.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that if North Korea reached a technological level deemed threatening, then military options “were on the table.” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster commented that President Trump insisted that North Korea being able to target the United States with a nuclear warhead was “intolerable” and had directed the US to prepare a preventive war option that would thwart North Korea from completing development of an ICBM.
There have been public comments by the president and other senior officials suggesting that the US is contemplating a military strike.
Indeed, debating whether President Trump will initiate a military attack on North Korea has consumed Washington during the past year. But intercepting missile test flights that do not clearly pose a security threat or military strikes on North Korean soil risk triggering an all-out war with catastrophic consequences. While the US should be steadfast in the defence of its territory and its allies, it should refrain from its previous bellicose threats of preventive military strikes and save preemptive attack for indications of imminent North Korean strike.
The Trump administration responded to the latest missile launch in tones considerably more muted than its earlier threats of preventive military attacks to keep the regime from completing development of an ICBM. Secretary Tillerson proclaimed, “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”
Rather than threatening military options, Trump instead vowed to impose “additional major sanctions” onto the regime. Secretary Tillerson emphasized “We have a long list of additional, potential sanctions, some of which involve… financial institutions. And the Treasury Department will be announcing those when they’re ready to roll out.”
Tillerson may have telegraphed a new tactic by declaring that “the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from the DPRK.” Although UN resolutions require that all cargo going in and out of North Korea be inspected, China has resisted enabling the means to do so on the high seas.
Some Favor Engagement
Advocates for diplomatic re-engagement depict Pyongyang’s missile launch as a response to the Trump administration’s recent re-designation of Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terror. Offsetting blame for North Korea’s transgressions onto the United States enables them to justify a return to negotiations. These advocates interpret Pyongyang’s claim that it has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” as a prelude to forthcoming regime flexibility on talks.
Washington should reject such calls for a premature return to negotiations. Numerous previous North Korean agreements pledging to never develop nuclear weapons failed. Subsequent agreements promising to abandon those weapons they promised never to build also failed.
There is little utility to such negotiations as long as Pyongyang rejects their core premise, which is abandonment of its nuclear weapons and programs. Advocating yet another attempt at negotiating a nuclear settlement with North Korea flies in the face of Pyongyang’s previous broken pledges never to develop nuclear weapons and subsequent promises to abandon those weapons.
Numerous previous North Korean agreements pledging to never develop nuclear weapons failed.
By word and deed, North Korea has repeatedly and emphatically shown it has no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has made clear in both public statements and private meetings that denuclearization is off the table and there is nothing that Washington or Seoul could offer to induce Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
During meetings in Europe earlier this year, North Korean officials showed no signals of flexibility or willingness to negotiate. Instead, North Korean interlocutors presented a stark choice: “First accept us as a nuclear state, then we are prepared to talk about a peace treaty or fight. We are ready for either.”
For over 20 years, there have been official two-party talks, three-party talks, four-party talks and six-party talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. The US and its allies offered economic benefits, developmental assistance, humanitarian assistance, diplomatic recognition, declaration of non-hostility, turning a blind eye to violations and non-implementation of US laws – all to no avail.
Seoul signed 240 inter-Korean agreements on a wide range of issues and offered extensive economic and diplomatic inducements in return for Pyongyang simply beginning to comply with its denuclearization pledges – withoutt success.
Also, it is difficult to have a dialogue with a country that shuns it. North Korea closed the “New York channel” in July 2016, severing the last official communication link – until allowing dialogue recently to facilitate the return of the comatose and dying US citizen Otto Warmbier.
Pyongyang walked away from senior-level meetings with South Korean counterparts in December 2015, precipitating the collapse of inter-Korean dialogue. In the Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), North Korea refuses to even answer the phone or check its mailbox for messages from the US and South Korea. North Korea has already repeatedly rejected several attempts at engagement by President Moon Jae-in, dismissing them as “nonsense.”
Proposals for returning to negotiations, such as the freeze for freeze option, all share a common theme in calling for yet more concessions by the US in return for a commitment by the North to undertake a portion of what it is already obligated to do under numerous UN resolutions.
Need For Pressure
The best way to engage in negotiations is after a comprehensive rigorous, and sustained international pressure strategy. If the US is serious about going after North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and those who assist it, Washington will have to mount a more sustained and committed sanctions campaign.
Successive US administrations have talked tough about imposing pressure on the North Korean regime but instead engaged in timid incrementalism in imposing sanctions and defending US law. US officials responsible for sanctions will tell you privately that they have lists and evidence of North Korean, Chinese, and other violators but were prevented from implementing them.
Contrary to assertions that North Korea was the “most heavily sanctioned and most cut off nation on earth,” it was only last year that the US had finally sanctioned as many North Korean entities as we had sanctioned those of Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Trump has described his North Korea policy as “maximum pressure and engagement,” yet has continued to pull US punches on sanctions. Most notable is his reluctance to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese entities that are violating US laws. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, gave the White House a list of 12 Chinese banks that should be targeted for sanctions. No action has yet been taken.
Trump has described his North Korea policy as “maximum pressure and engagement,” yet has continued to pull US punches on sanctions.
In September, the Trump administration released a new executive order that provided authority to freeze assets of any entity trading in goods, services or technology with Pyongyang. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that, “foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward they can choose to do business with the United States or North Korea, but not both.” But no sanctions have been issued under the new authority.
North Korea must be held accountable for its actions. To refrain from doing so is to condone illegal activity and give de facto immunity from US and international law and to undermine UN resolutions.
Washington should lead a world-wide effort to inspect and interdict North Korean shipping, aggressively target all illicit activity, sanction entities including Chinese banks and businesses that are facilitating Pyongyang’s prohibited nuclear and missile programs, expand information operations against the regime, highlight and condemn Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity, and wean away even North Korea’s legitimate business partners.
Sanctions and targeted financial measures require time and the political will to maintain them in order to work. It is a policy of a slow python constriction rather than a rapid cobra strike. Sanctions, in conjunction with other instruments of national power, have a better chance than any tool being used in isolation.
Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He recently spoke at a special event organized by the US Embassy and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.