The United States and North Korea are in a dangerous cycle of escalating military threats and rhetorical exchanges. The risk of a miscalculation that results in catastrophic civilian consequences and global economic shocks is high. To get off the escalatory ladder of military escalation and to build economic pressure to force change in Pyongyang, Washington should embrace both additional economic pressure and China’s so-called “freeze for freeze” proposal in which North Korea would suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests and the U.S. would suspend large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea.
In recent months, the U.S and our allies have notched several successes in the global campaign to put economic pressure on North Korea. Most recently, this includes new U.N. Security Council sanctions passed this week that will cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of North Korean revenue, reduce North Korean fuel purchases, and restrict investments, including Chinese investments, in North Korea. New U.S. sanctions currently under discussion in Congress could put even more pressure on North Korea by further reducing its trade flows and access to the global financial system.
The reality of sanctions is that they take time to bite. And even after sanctions begin to bite economically, it takes time for diplomatic negations to turn economic leverage into a diplomatic agreement. For example, the U.S. began imposing tough sanctions on Iran in 2010, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act. But it took five years and multiple additional rounds of sanctions in 2011 and 2012 for economic pressure to build and for the U.S. and Iran to reach an agreement imposing sharp limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
North Korea, like Iran, is vulnerable to sanctions, given its dependence on exports for hard currency and on imports for basic necessities ranging from fuel to machine parts. But North Korea didn’t earn the nickname “hermit kingdom” for nothing and can likely survive even drastic measures for at least a period of time by drawing down domestic stockpiles and inflicting even greater suffering on the North Korean people while insulating regime activities from economic pressure. Certainly it will take time for Kim Jong Un’s regime to feel the kind of severe and threatening economic pressure that might compel it to make serious changes to its nuclear program, or which might compel a change in government in Pyongyang.
This is where China’s “freeze for freeze” can come into play. Given the current trajectory of military threats out of both Washington and Pyongyang, the U.S. and North Korea may well find themselves in a military conflict before stepped up sanctions have their intended impact. The “freeze for freeze” however, could de-escalate tensions in the near term by curtailing North Korean tests and large-scale U.S. military maneuvers. This would buy time for sanctions to bite. From a U.S. perspective, a “freeze for freeze” would also somewhat impair North Korea’s ability to continue perfecting its nuclear and ballistic missiles by depriving it of the test data that has facilitated rapid North Korean progress in recent years.
Of course, an agreement between the U.S. and China to pursue both pressure and a “freeze for freeze” requires agreement on key details. The U.S. should agree to China’s proposed “freeze for freeze” only if China agrees to even more international sanctions, including sanctions on most remaining North Korean exports and on the sale of all key commodities and goods, including all oil, to North Korea. The U.S. freeze should not cover the deployment of defensive military technologies and systems, such as the terminal high altitude area defense system.
China needs to be prepared to take serious, credible steps to ensure that Pyongyang in fact adheres to a freeze in its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and North Korea needs to understand that the deal is off if they come close to a test, not just if they actually follow through with one. The U.S. needs to be prepared to rapidly resume exercises if North Korea breaches its agreement or engages in another seriously provocative act, such as attacking a South Korean vessel like North Korea did with the Cheonan in 2010.
The U.S., China and North Korea may not be able to reach agreement to try both increased economic pressure and “freeze for freeze.” But after a decade of failed policies, any kind of diplomatic solution that curbs North Korea’s nuclear program is going to require Washington to try to reach agreement on diplomatic approaches that it has been wary of in the past. As we have seen with U.S. sanctions on Iran, Russia and other examples of sanctioned states, it is also going to take some time for economic pressure to bite. If Washington can make it work, a “freeze for freeze” policy and sanctions might just buy the U.S. time to cripple Pyongyang’s economy and to develop other diplomatic initiatives to reach a long-term solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Peter Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration.