Over the past couple of weeks since North Korea successfully tested an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska (potentially with nuclear weapons), the United States and much of the world have lived under a heightened sense of urgency about North Korea’s missile capabilities. Policymakers from the Left to the Right are calling for action, but America is in a worse global position than usual to meet North Korea’s threats. Undoubtedly, policymakers want to do something, as policymakers always do. But it is less and less clear what that something can be, as long as China continues to be the key to pressuring North Korea.
China was always unlikely to work with the international community in pressuring North Korea, and has only reluctantly gone along with sanctions without putting much of an effort into enforcing them. This time, however, Chinese action and compliance in pressuring North Korea are even less likely due to other geopolitical tensions with the U.S. in the region.
A Game Changer, but No Revolution
The North Korean missile test may be a game changer, but the reality of the North Korean threat is far from new. In Seoul, the South Korean capitol, such fears have long been part of daily existence. North Korea’s threats of annihilating Seoul by turning it into a “sea of fire” (and other colorful expressions) are so frequent that most people meet them with a shrug of the shoulders. People here know full well that North Korea can destroy much of the country, and that it would not even need nuclear weapons to do so.
Instead, following this particular missile test, America bore the grunt of worry and concern. For some years, it has been a question not about if, but about when, North Korea would gain capacity to strike continental U.S. territory. In 2016, then-National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper stated that “it [North Korea] is also committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that’s capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight tested.”
Why China Won’t Help
President Trump’s first instinct on North Korea earlier this year was to turn to China, and rightly so. International sanctions against North Korea can only work if Beijing complies since China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far. Whether due to will or capacity, China’s enforcement of sanctions on North Korea has most often been spotty at best. China has a geopolitical interest in keeping North Korea afloat since it provides a buffer between itself and the U.S. ally of South Korea and since U.S. troops are stationed there. Even if China would have a political interest in cooperating and complying with international sanctions, it would have to balance any such interests against the risk of pushing North Korea too hard. Should the North Korean regime’s stability be threatened, for example, China would risk having a refugee crisis and potential violent turmoil on its border. Such a scenario would be a nightmare for the risk-averse Beijing regime.
This has all been true all throughout the international efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program through sanctions. As I wrote when President Trump first floated his hopes that China would cooperate on pressuring North Korea, nothing has changed in Beijing’s calculation that would make it change its stance on North Korea. Usually, after new international sanctions are adopted following a North Korean nuclear or missile test, Beijing will initially take enough action to make the optics look as if it is working with the international community to squeeze North Korea.
As time goes by, however, the pressure tends to let up, and whatever prohibitions it might have enforced on trade with North Korea it tends to ease up. It is important to remember that local interests matter a great deal too. The border region in China is heavily engaged in trade with North Korea, and fully cutting of economic relations with North Korea would risk a great deal of discontent from businesspeople and traders in cities such as Dandong on the North Korean border.
This time does not seem to be any different. In fact, trade between China and North Korea showed a significant increase in the first half of 2017 when China claimed it was adhering to the international sanctions framework. President Trump appears to have woken up to this fact when he tweeted: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”. Making things even more difficult is the fact that the foundation of North Korea’s economy rests on unofficial and often illicit trading channels. The long-standing international sanctions regime has made North Korea highly skilled at working around it.
China was never likely to act in tandem with the U.S. on North Korea, but tensions elsewhere in the world makes such action even less likely than before. About a week ago, two U.S. bombers flew over the South China Sea in a show of force against Chinese claims to the territory. U.S. planes have previously trained with Japanese counterparts in the East China Sea. The U.S. decision to approve a $1.4 billion arms sale package to Taiwan added fuel to the fire, prompting PRC Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai to state that “US arms sales to Taiwan and the sanctions against Chinese enterprises have damaged the basis and mutual trust between the two countries, it also contradicts the spirit and consensus of the two leaders’ meeting in Mar A Lago.” Cui’s mention of sanctions against Chinese enterprises refers to the U.S. Treasury’s sanctions against individual Chinese firms that have links to North Korea.
The U.S. could attempt to work with Russia on the North Korean issue, and such an approach certainly has merit to it, as Renssealer Lee and William Severe pointed out earlier this month But as of now, the trend appears to be going in the opposite direction. In fact, Russia has hinted at expanding its ties with North Korea. Earlier this year, a new ferry route opened between North Korea’s Rajin Port and Vladivostok in Russia. In the first quarter of 2017, trade between Russia and North Korea rose significantly in dollar-terms compared with the same period in the previous year. As Russia grows increasingly isolated within the international community, it will strive to expand its trade partners, and North Korea needs the same thing. Trade and relations between the two countries may well continue to grow in the near future.
Sanctions Can Still Work, but Making Them Work is Difficult
None of this is to argue that sanctions by definition cannot work because China won’t cooperate. In the past few weeks, the U.S. has upped the pressure by targeting specific Chinese firms and individuals with sanctions for their ties to North Korea. The U.S. is trying to get at North Korea’s assets and trading ties by targeting them directly, rather than going through the international community sanctions framework, where loopholes abound. Such a strategy may well bring results, but it won’t be easy. In two recent interviews with international media, Ri Jong Ho, a former North Korean official from the illusive Bureau 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, has detailed how North Korea conducts its international economic activities outside of conventional routes. To name one example, according to Ri, North Korea purchases a significant proportion of its oil and fuels from Russia, not just China. This trade is done off the books, creating the impression that almost all of North Korea’s fuel supplies come from China.
The point here is that illicit activities are part of the backbone of the North Korean economy. They are not exceptions, but part of the general norm of how North Korea conducts economic activities, both domestically and internationally. Its illicit ties are probably not impossible to get to, but when some operations are targeted and shut down, others pop up. Putting North Korea under international financial pressure is far from impossible, but the question is how hard such pressure can actually be.
There are no good options in North Korea policy, and increasingly few options altogether. Whether it be to talk to North Korea (and eventually recognize it as a nuclear state, as Arthur Waldron argues it should), or to intensify targeted sanctions against financial entities dealing with North Korea, U.S. policymakers should take actions that can actually achieve their desired impact, and resist the pressure to do “something” just for the sake of it. Their North Korean counterparts certainly know what they want—to become a full-fledged nuclear state—and they are making rapid progress in getting there.