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OPINION | Sanctions against North Korea didn’t work then and won’t work now


While President Trump threatens “fire and fury” against North Korea, his diplomats are talking up remedies based on sanctions and diplomacy, in hope that Kim Jong Un’s regime can be persuaded to embark on talks over stopping its nuclear missile program. Unfortunately, sanctions won’t suffice, and any deal with Pyongyang would be a disaster.

{mosads}In particular, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have been celebrating last week’s diplomatic victory at the UN, where all 15 members of the Security Council, including permanent members China and Russia, voted unanimously to approve the toughest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea. In remarks Wednesday to the press, Tillerson reiterated his hope of pressuring North Korea, “with the engagement of Russia and China” toward “a dialogue about a different future.”

That might sound good in theory, but it’s a discouragingly familiar scene in practice. For more than a decade, the UN Security Council has been passing sanctions against North Korea, all of them approved unanimously. In other words, Russia and China, rather than abstaining, have actively signed on to the entire stack of existing UN sanctions. None of those diplomatic victories for the U.S. has sufficed to stop the flow of resources into the North Korea weapons programs now enabling Kim to threaten the U.S. with a nuclear strike.

Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, the UN Security Council has approved seven sanctions resolutions against North Korea, each adding strictures tougher than those before. The full list, aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, includes: Resolution 1718 (2006); Resolution 1874 (2009); Resolutions 2087 and 2094 (2013); Resolutions 2270 and 2321 (2016); and, just last week, Resolution 2371.

According to UN voting records, all seven of these UN resolutions were approved 15-0. In other words, over the past 11 years, not only China and Russia, but the full panoply of all 10 rotating members of the Security Council, with their two-year terms, have been voting yes to every UN sanctions resolution passed against North Korea. Yet North Korea has now conducted five nuclear tests, amassed a nuclear arsenal and demonstrated with two successful tests last month that it has mastered the technology to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The argument in support of the latest sanctions is that they are the toughest ever, backed by U.S. economic muscle and fresh resolve. But even with America’s economic reach, there are limits to U.S. jurisdiction. There are plenty of agents in North Korea, China, Russia, the Middle East and beyond, who are adept at dodging sanctions. It can take a lot less time to set up networks of front companies than to track them down and blacklist them.

And while UN sanctions resolutions are officially binding on all member states, the UN has no power to force compliance. Individual member states are officially required to submit reports to the UN on how they plan to police their own turf. Many don’t bother. As of August 3, according to UN data, only 77 countries, or fewer than half the UN’s 193 member states, had submitted reports on how they plan to comply with UN sanctions resolution 2321, adopted unanimously more than eight months ago, on Nov. 30, 2016.

But let us for the sake of argument suppose that China and Russia finally change course, fully cooperate with all those UN sanctions they’ve voted for, and that this suffices to bring North Korea to the bargaining table. What then?

Don’t get your hopes up. North Korea’s totalitarian system, as long as it endures, makes it virtually impossible to ensure full monitoring and compliance even when a deal is struck. And North Korea’s totalitarian Kim dynasty has a record of cheating on every nuclear deal it has made, from the 1994 Agreed Framework reached by President Bill Clinton to the 2007 Six-Party deal, hosted by China and reached on the watch of President George W. Bush.

In 2012, shortly after Kim Jong Un inherited power following the death of his father, President Obama attempted a deal imposing a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. That fell apart two weeks later, when North Korea tested a long-range missile.

At best, bargains with Pyongyang have perhaps helped slow North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-tipped missiles, buying time for the Clinton and Bush administrations to run out the clock, each president handing off a worsening North Korean threat to his successor. In the case of Obama, the largely passive policy of “strategic patience” — with its sanctions and its fringe of diplomatic feelers — likewise ran out the clock, but during an interval in which the North Korean nuclear and missile threat began to accelerate dramatically.

The current crisis includes Tuesday’s report in the Washington Post that according to anonymous U.S. intelligence officials, the Defense Intelligence Agency has now concluded that North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead, with which it can arm its missiles.

That should come as no great surprise, given that it’s almost three years since Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, then serving as the top commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, stated at a 2014 Pentagon press briefing that in his personal opinion, North Korea already had “the capacity to have a miniaturized device” and “they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have.” Scaparrotti repeated this opinion in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015.

If sanctions and talks won’t work, what can be done? The only real answer is that the Kim regime must go, quite preferably without a hot war — if past prevarications have left any way to avoid it. The urgent questions need to center not on how to bring North Korea to the bargaining table, but whether there are still any means short of fire and fury to bring down the Kim regime.

Claudia Rosett is foreign-policy fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty, and blogs at Follow her on Twitter @CRosett.

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

Tags Bill Clinton Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson
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