North Korea threatened last week to abandon diplomacy with the United States and resume nuclear and missile testing. Pyongyang’s actions are consistent with its hostile rhetoric; recent reports indicate the regime continues to build up its nuclear and missile infrastructure. If the Trump administration wants to maximize the prospects for serious nuclear negotiations, it will have to escalate pressure on the economic, diplomatic, and military fronts, to remind Kim Jong Un that North Korea will remain a pariah state unless he makes a strategic choice to give up his nuclear program.
In February, three Stanford University researchers released a report stating that North Korea “continued to operate and, in some cases, expand the nuclear weapons complex infrastructure” in order to produce more raw materials for nuclear weapons. The study estimated that over the period of North Korea’s nuclear negotiations Pyongyang produced about 330 pounds of weapons-grade enriched uranium, which it could use to develop six nuclear bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency reached a similar conclusion earlier this month.
North Korea’s missile development has persisted as well. South Korea’s intelligence chief, Suh Hoon, last week disclosed new activity at a missile research center in Pyongyang, where the North Koreans have previously assembled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Satellite images taken in early March also indicated that the regime is rebuilding its long-range missile site at Sohae, where it previously tested engines for ICBMs. At the Singapore summit last June, the North Koreans had agreed to dismantle the Sohae facility. And last July, U.S. intelligence agencies detected missile construction at the Sanumdong missile factory, which has already produced two ICBMs.
These developments suggest that both the Hanoi and Singapore summits failed to secure any real progress toward denuclearization because North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to keep his warheads and missiles. While Kim pledged in Singapore to “work toward complete denuclearization,” President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE said after the Hanoi summit, Kim “has a certain vision [of denuclearization] and it’s not exactly our vision.” That is an understatement.
While Washington seeks North Korea’s final and fully verified denuclearization (FFVD), Pyongyang has offered to dismantle only the Yongbyon site, a critical component of North Korea’s nuclear program, but only one of many moving parts. Moreover, North Korea’s reluctance to acknowledge the existence of other facilities, such as the recently revealed Kangson nuclear enrichment site, raises questions about Pyongyang’s genuine commitment to FFVD.
Fortunately, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against the regime prior to the Singapore summit has laid the groundwork for reinvigorated sanctions. In Trump’s first 16 months in office, the Treasury Department issued 182 sanction designations — compared to the 154 designations issued by Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE during all eight years of his presidency. Trump’s sanctions are particularly notable for targeting many non-North Koreans who facilitated Pyongyang’s efforts to access the global financial system, on which it depends for hard currency.
Now, Washington should build upon these efforts by targeting Chinese and other non-North Korean banks facilitating transactions for Kim. Apart from the designations of Bank of Dandong and ABLV Bank of Latvia in the last two years, the U.S. has not sanctioned the institutions that constitute the central nodes in North Korea’s illicit overseas financial networks.
Likewise, the administration should ramp up pressure on companies across a myriad of industries that employ North Korean overseas laborers, who earn hard currency for the regime while working under slave-like conditions. Section 321 of the Countering of America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which President Trump signed into law in August 2017, requires the executive to impose sanctions on foreign persons employing North Korean laborers, who provide another financial lifeline for Pyongyang’s weapons program. Pursuant to this law, the Trump administration has already imposed one round of sanctions on Chinese and Russian IT companies that employed North Koreans. Yet many more such companies remain untouched by sanctions.
The Trump administration should also ensure the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 2397, passed unanimously in December 2017, which requires governments to expel all North Korean laborers by the end of 2019. As this deadline approaches, the U.S. should remind nations to comply with the resolution or risk sanctions.
Washington must also continue leading the international effort to enforce existing UN sanctions that North Korea works consistently to undermine. A UN panel of experts, for example, disclosed last week that North Korea has violated UN sanctions “by flouting the caps on the import of petroleum products and coal oil.” To prevent further violations, the United States and its regional allies must increase their patrolling and surveillance of areas that Pyongyang regularly exploits.
On the military front, the United States must reinforce its alliance with South Korea (ROK). President Trump’s recent decision to downsize the U.S. and ROK’s combined military exercises is ill-advised. General Curtis Scaparrotti, the former commander of the ROK/U.S Combined Forces Command, noted these military exercises were “essential in improving ROK-U.S. crisis management, combat readiness, and interoperability.” By scaling back the exercises without reciprocal concessions from Pyongyang, the United States risks emboldening the regime to harden its negotiating position.
President Trump made the right choice to walk away from a deal in Hanoi. But the administration cannot sit idly by and wait for Kim to decide his next move. The only option now is to ramp up pressure on North Korea in order to remind Kim how much his own decisions will cost him and his regime.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Mat on Twitter @MatJunsuk. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP.