The complaint about the U.N. Security Council’s new sanctions against North Korea is that they aren’t strict enough to force Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear program. But here’s the thing: Nothing is going to force him to do that.
It’s time to recognize that North Korea is a nuclear power—small and not fully tested but a nuclear power nonetheless—and that, as with other nuclear powers, the most effective ways to deal with it are through deterrence and diplomacy. Any other course is the stuff of delusions.
There are several reasons why Kim would be loath to give up his nukes. First, they are all he has. For a tiny, impoverished country amid several large, rich ones (“a shrimp among whales,” as Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, put it), nukes can stave off a wide range of threats.
Second, Kim follows the news. He saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi when they gave up their nuclear programs, whether through force or conciliation: They were invaded or overthrown anyway. Kim is no doubt also aware of what’s happening with the Iranian nuclear deal: The Iranians agreed to dismantle the country’s nuclear program, in exchange for lifting sanctions; the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified that they’re abiding by the deal’s terms, yet President Donald Trump says that he might claim they’re not and reimpose the sanctions anyway. Given all this recent history, no one in Kim’s position would outright surrender his one source of leverage and power.
Finally, economic sanctions have their limits, especially with a dictator who has little concern for the health or wealth of his citizens. Kim, his entourage, and certain party officials enjoy luxuries, while most of his country’s 25 million people live in abject poverty. Two million are believed to have died in a famine in the 1990s. The Kim dynasty did not suffer.
The sanctions levied by the U.N. Security Council on Monday are far-reaching. They ban textile exports from North Korea and the sale of natural gas to North Korea; set a cap on refined petroleum imports, to the point of cutting the country’s current consumption by about 10 percent; and allow inspections of ships suspected of carrying fuel or weapons into North Korean harbors.
These measures fall short of what the Trump administration had pushed for: a ban on refined petroleum imports, the right to board suspected ships with arms, and a freezing of Kim’s personal assets. But Trump’s tougher sanctions were never going to pass, and since the United States conducts no trade with North Korea, we need the approval of those who do conduct trade, especially China. The dilemma here is that China wants to punish North Korea for its atomic antics but not so much that the regime might collapse. If it did collapse, China would face a humanitarian crisis in its scantly populated northeast territories, as millions of North Koreans would stream across the border. A collapse would also mean U.S. air and naval forces would no longer be holed up in northeast Asia and could thus redeploy to the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, which are China’s most vital areas.
Conceivably, Kim might do or say something so reckless that Chinese leaders recalculate their strategic priorities. But according to U.S. military and intelligence officials who follow China closely, there’s no evidence that any such shift is in the offing.
In other words, given the geostrategic context, sanctions are always going to be halfhearted at best.
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported recently that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been holding quiet discussions with his counterparts in China and Russia about resuming some sort of talks with North Korea about its nuclear program. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that, if these talks do get underway, she wants a seat at the table too.
This makes sense. If North Korea is now a nuclear power, having tested high-yield bombs and missiles with the range to strike our Asian allies and possibly slices of the continental United States, then we need to talk, even if talking doesn’t yield much.
In a fascinating article for the New Yorker, Evan Osnos described a recent trip to Pyongyang, where, among other things, he talked at length with senior officials of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies. What struck me most was how little even these officials understand about American politics, culture, and attitudes. And, of course, this ignorance and misapprehension is reciprocated in the Trump administration, which, besides other shortcomings, has not yet nominated an assistant secretary of state or defense for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The United States could deploy an impressive array of military forces designed to persuade Kim not to attack us or our allies. In other words, we can mount an effective deterrent. The South Korean government, which otherwise advocates peaceful détente between the two countries, announced on Sept. 4 that it was creating a “decapitation unit”—a special brigade whose sole mission is to kill Kim in the event of war.* The Seoul officials announced this publicly because the very knowledge of this brigade could have a deterrent effect on Kim’s actions.
But wars sometimes erupt through accidents and misunderstandings, and one way to ward off that possibility is diplomacy. Trump and Kim are never going to be friends (and if Trump thinks they might be, he should forget about it at once), but talks have their value—if just to explore what the various sides in the talks want.
Also, even if we can’t force or persuade the North Koreans to get rid of their nuclear arsenal, maybe we can push them to freeze or otherwise limit its size. They are said to have about 20 nuclear weapons (or the making of 20 weapons). Better 20 than 100 or 200, which wouldn’t be impossible if they keep churning them out unabated.
China has suggested North Korea might freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of U.S.–South Korean military exercises.* This is a bad idea: What the U.S. needs to do, now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, is to shore up its cooperation—military and otherwise—with its allies in the region, especially with South Korea, which the North has long wanted to weaken.
But maybe there are other lures for which the North would agree to freeze its program. There’s no way to find out but to find out. The guaranteed way not to find out—or to accomplish anything that might keep Pyongyang in check—is to pretend that nothing has changed. There’s no magic chokehold to make Kim Jong-un scream “Uncle!” and succumb to all our wishes.
Correction, Sept. 13, 2017: This post originally stated that the South Korean government announced the creation of the “decapitation unit” on Sept. 12. It announced the unit on Sept. 4. It also misstated that North Korea said it would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of U.S.–South Korean military exercises. Chinese officials suggested North Korea might do so.