OPINION | North Korea must feel full weight of US sanctions, pressure — now
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In its latest assessment, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) concludes that North Korea could field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2018, two years earlier than its previous estimate of 2020. The new assessment from DIA should be a wakeup call for anyone who still believes that Pyongyang will negotiate away its nuclear program or the U.S. can rely on China to restrain North Korea. Instead, it is time for the U.S. to finally put in place the kind of aggressive sanctions that forced Iran to negotiate the future of its own illicit nuclear program. 

Last week, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva (USAF), told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea’s missiles already have the range to reach the United States but lack “any degree of accuracy.”


While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to build missiles that can take out American cities, he is also perfectly glad to field less accurate weapons that may hit the suburbs instead.

Pyongyang has already said it would deploy a new medium-range missile, the Pukguksong-2, which may not be combat ready. The Pukguksong-2 has only been through two successful flight tests and North Korea has little experience with solid-fueled missiles, but that is not holding back the regime. 

North Korea could also deploy another new missile, the Hwasong-12, which could travel 4,500 kilometers—far enough to threaten U.S. military assets on Guam. An ICBM, however, would enable Pyongyang to threaten a direct strike on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, forcing American policymakers to consider whether a skirmish between North and South could end with a nuclear weapon used against the American homeland.

While that prospect is dire enough, it is important to remember that one of Pyongyang’s missile proliferation customers is Iran. The Trump administration must worry that a Tehran emboldened by the 2015 nuclear deal may turn to North Korea for missile assistance. Even more troubling is the possibility that North Korea could share with Iran its expertise on building nuclear weapons..

Furthermore, in its words and deeds, North Korea has made it abundantly clear it is not interested in negotiating an end to its nuclear weapons and missile programs, or even a temporary freeze on their development. After all, why make concessions in order to receive the same support that is already available from a Chinese leadership willing to do anything to prevent instability in North Korea?

For that reason, the Trump administration should move swiftly to put real substance behind its policy of “maximum pressure”. After 10 years of both Republican and Democratic presidents kicking this can down the road, success is anything but assured. However, there is a model we can learn from, which is the high impact sanctions regime that Congress imposed on Iran during President Obama’s first term. While the 2015 nuclear deal remains controversial, all sides agree that hard-hitting sanctions are what forced Iran to the negotiating table. 

Despite the common misperception that North Korea is already isolated from the global economy, it is still only fifth on the list of countries subject to the most U.S. sanctions. In fact, there are still more Iranian entities designated by the U.S. Treasury than there are North Korean ones, despite the sharp reduction in sanctions on Iran after the 2015 nuclear deal.

To hurt North Korea, the place to start is with China, but it does not end there. China is where a wide range of companies and individuals take advantage of deliberately weak enforcement to conduct business on North Korea’s behalf, to include laundering impressive sums — at least $2.2 billion from 2009 to 2017 — through the U.S. financial system.

The Trump administration must devote significant resources to the North Korea effort mirroring the efforts that broke Tehran’s will. This will not be easy and at times it will seem as we are playing “Whac-a-Mole” where North Korea is one step ahead. But the U.S. dollar is still preeminent, providing Washington enormous leverage. With patient but insistent diplomacy, we can build a coalition of likeminded countries (South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to reverse this tide.

The Iranian model is instructive here: Governments, companies, individuals, and banks will need to decide whether to do business with the United States or with its adversary. It is true that some of North Korea’s partners are isolated from the U.S. financial system, but most of the time those partners still rely directly or indirectly on access to the U.S. dollar.

Countering North Korea’s aggressive nuclear weapons and missile programs will not be easy or quick. The time for accepting excuses is over and the full weight of the United States government must be felt by Kim Jong Un.  

Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was the non-proliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies is a non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow @FDD.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.