Time to reconstitute pressure on Pyongyang

Associated Press / Alex Brandon

A “saturation attack” describes simultaneous launches aimed at overwhelming an adversary’s defenses and crippling their capability and will to respond. Amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s launching of ballistic missiles near a U.S. facility in Iraq, North Korea appears intent to pile on, having just launched another ballistic missile Tuesday. 

The missile, which reportedly failed, may have been part of a larger intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system that Pyongyang seeks to test.

The Biden administration cannot afford to let North Korea extort it while it is distracted by other foreign policy crises. The time to reconstitute pressure on Pyongyang is now. 

On March 10, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby declared that Pyongyang’s post-Beijing Olympics launches on Feb. 26 and March 4 were testing components of a new ICBM “likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch.” An unnamed senior administration official called North Korea’s actions “a serious escalation.” Initially, Pyongyang framed the March test as part of a larger effort to develop a “reconnaissance satellite.”

The latest tests follow Pyongyang’s escalatory January replete with seven missile tests including the Jan. 30 launch of a intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of targeting Guam last tested in September 2017. North Korea has conducted at least 12 missile launches this year. 

Domestically, Kim might be seeking to use missile tests to distract from deteriorating economic and public health conditions, as well as to make good on pledges to upgrade Pyongyang’s nuclear, missile, and military capabilities per a potentially pre-planned test schedule. Looking abroad, beyond attempting to blackmail the U.S. into economic relief, he could use these tests to measure the mettle of new conservative South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol, who will enter office this May.

Regardless of motivation, Pyongyang’s missile escalation is a harbinger of resumed long-range ballistic missile and potentially even nuclear testing to come. Traditionally, the Kim regime felicitates anniversaries with missile or nuclear tests or military parades. April 15 – the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s founder and grandfather of the current leader – may be a major flashpoint. South Korean sources believe it could be even sooner. 

The Biden administration should not drown out the impact of its military drills and limited designations by doubling-down on engagement. Instead, it should reconstitute diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.

Committing to denuclearization, the Biden administration put all its eggs in the engagement basket in 2021 by encouraging Kim to negotiate without preconditions. Kim rebuffed these advances as a “façade,” commencing his own pressure policy with missile launches and threats.

2022 has fared no better. Per a readout of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s March 14 meeting with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi, which followed the ICBM news, Washington did not mention or condemn any of Pyongyang’s missile tests from 2022. This is an unforced error and sends Kim a message that Washington is too burdened by other crises to respond to North Korea.

And while laudatory, the administration’s sanctions against North Korea’s missile and WMD procurement networks on Jan. 12 and March 11 risk appearing as an occasional slap on the wrist rather than the opening salvo of a larger offensive imposing costs on the Kim regime for its political warfare strategy.

Some may pejoratively ask if North Korea has anything left to sanction. But the UN Panel of Experts, a group that investigates UNSCR implementation, routinely identifies areas in reporting where UN sanctions on North Korea are waning. The group’s work is impactful, which is one reason why China is focused on reducing its role.

In addition to working with Congress to implement many of the mandatory North Korea sanctions that Congress enacted, the Biden administration could rebuild a North Korea pressure policy in three key areas based on the Panel’s reports.

First, Washington should enforce existing sanctions related to Pyongyang’s import of refined petroleum beyond the UN cap. The Biden team should also target North Korea’s export of coal, which is prohibited by the UN sanctions.

Second, the United States should target North Korea’s overseas network of representatives, which Pyongyang uses to procure prohibited and controlled items and to find creative ways to generate and repatriate revenues. The Biden administration’s Jan. 12 sanctions highlighted the network’s role by exposing five North Korean officials, one based in Russia and four in China, engaged in illicit procurement activity.

Third, Washington must reduce Pyongyang’s access to the international financial system. Both the Obama and Trump administrations sanctioned Chinese financial institutions, entities, and individuals to send a message to Beijing. It will take the same action by Biden to ensure China reins in Pyongyang.

Lastly, the administration needs to rebuild the diplomatic coalition that would condemn North Korea’s actions, reduce its diplomatic presence overseas and in Pyongyang, and fully implement UN and U.S. sanctions.

At a UNSC meeting on Jan. 20, the administration issued a strong condemnation of Pyongyang’s missile launches. But less than half of the council’s members supported the statement. A similar statement issued on Feb. 4 raised the total supporters to more than half. But China and Russia prevented a formal response to Pyongyang’s UN sanctions violations. A statement on Feb. 28 took a step back to less than half the council, including U.S. partners like the UAE, not agreeing. The U.S. also failed on March 8 to get support for a similar resolution of condemnation.

While it is unclear why the United States has been unable to convince even friendly countries to join it, if Washington is focused on continuing an engagement-centric policy, it will not convince others to counter Pyongyang.

The Biden administration has a lot on its foreign policy plate. But there is no time like to present for a more robust North Korea policy, especially as Kim prepares to introduce more advanced missiles into the equation.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. Follow him on Twitter @NatSecAnthony.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at FDD, where he covers Iranian political and security issues as well as functional issues like nonproliferation and arms control. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Tags Economy of North Korea Foreign relations of North Korea International relations Iran Jake Sullivan Joe Biden John Kirby Kim Jong Un North Korea North Korea missile tests North Korea–United States relations Nuclear program of North Korea Presidency of Joe Biden Russia Sanctions against North Korea

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