America talks big but acts small when it comes to North Korea

America talks big but acts small when it comes to North Korea
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“This is the biggest threat to humankind right now,” said Terry Branstad to CNBC, referring to North Korea’s “illegal and aggressive development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”

America’s ambassador to China got that right. North Korea poses the most urgent threat as well. John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador, reportedly said the CIA has advised President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests Sotomayor, Ginsburg should have to recuse themselves on 'Trump related' cases Sanders says idea he can't work with Republicans is 'total nonsense' Sanders releases list of how to pay for his proposals MORE that the North will be able to hit the American homeland with nukes in three months. Trump has often declared he will not allow “little rocket man,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to possess the capability to strike America.

Because no one believes sanctions will disarm Pyongyang in that timeframe — Bolton is particularly dismissive in this regard — the logical conclusion is that the United States will launch an attack on North Korea soon. “They have not only drawn a red line, they’ve attached a countdown clock to it,” writes Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution.

There is war talk in Washington. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Congress set for clash over surveillance reforms Five things to know about emerging US, Taliban peace deal MORE (R-S.C.) obviously relishes discussing the destruction of North Korea, once even saying that all the casualties will be “over there.” He assured Americans in August, “They’re not going to die here.” Senior administration officials also talk of conflict. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has been particularly vocal on the possibility of war. “I think,” he said on Dec. 2, “it’s increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really, we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”

If there is a race, there has been scant evidence of it in recent weeks. President Trump himself now shows no sense of urgency in finding a non-military solution. On Nov. 29, for instance, he tweeted, “Just spoke to President Xi Jinping of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!”

So far, no such sanctions have been issued. Even when the administration has made good on sanctions promises in recent weeks, new measures have been unimpressive. On Nov. 20, while announcing North Korea had been added to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror, Trump said the Treasury Department would on the following day issue “an additional sanction, and a very large one.”

Sanction it was. Large it was not. On Nov. 21, the Treasury Department merely designated as sanctioned, under prior rules, one individual, 13 entities, and 20 vessels. Every designation is a step forward, but the Nov. 21 action was, considering Trump’s promise of the day before, disappointing. For some reason, the air has suddenly gone out of the president’s once-vigorous sanctions campaign.

At one time, it appeared Trump was moving quickly down the sanctions road. Two actions come to mind. First, almost immediately after signaling general displeasure with Chinese efforts in his pivotal June 20 tweet, the Treasury Department designated Bank of Dandong, a small Chinese bank, a “primary money laundering concern” pursuant to Section 311 of the Patriot Act, thereby sawing it off from the global financial system.

Call that a death sentence: Bank of Dandong can no longer clear transactions in dollars, the world’s dominant currency. Second, the president on Sept. 21 issued an executive order for sanctions, a monumental step forward. The order essentially denies access to the United States to those doing business with North Korea.

Enforcement since then has been less than impressive, however. There can be many reasons for the apparent lack of effort to prosecute the “maximum pressure” campaign, but one of them is the realization that sanctions can also hurt the American economy. Take money laundering. Many say the administration, to make an impression on Beijing, should also designate Bank of China, one of China’s “big four” banks, as a money launderer.

The bank, which does business in the United States, was named in a 2016 United Nations report for devising and operating in Singapore a cash-cleaning service for the North Koreans. There are indications this Chinese institution has been engaging in this sordid activity in other locations. As big as Bank of China is, as the world’s fourth-largest as ranked by assets, it is probably not the biggest Chinese bank participating in this dirty business. That honor may go to the world’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

So why has the administration not designated Bank of China or other large Chinese institutions? As Gary Samore of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs told Bloomberg, “If we were to impose penalties on really big Chinese financial institutions, it would have major economic consequences on the U.S.” The bearing of costs, often used as a reason for inaction, is really an argument for going forward and sanctioning, say, prominent Chinese money launderers. How so? Bearing costs shows Beijing we are serious about disarming Kim Jong Un.

Many American presidents, including the current one, have talked about the nuclear threat Kim and predecessors — his father and grandfather — have posed, but none of them has been willing to take actions that would also cost the United States. In these circumstances, how can we expect the Chinese to take us seriously when we are unwilling to accept any cost to protect the American homeland?

When Chinese leaders see the Trump administration do something requiring sacrifice, they will realize we are serious, and they will then act accordingly. The Chinese understand, even if Americans do not, that the United States has overwhelming leverage over China. As Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute said, “We haven’t even gotten close to the economic coercion we’re capable of.”

One thing we are capable of is destabilizing the Chinese financial system. Designating, say, Bank of China, would essentially kill off that institution and rock confidence in China’s already shaky banks. It could even push the debt-ridden Chinese economy off the edge. “Chinese customers are still violating U.N. sanctions by buying coal from North Korea,” sanctions guru Joshua Stanton told The Hill last week. “They’re almost certainly paying North Korea through our financial system, using a Chinese bank. Justice Department documents have implicated large Chinese banks in coal purchases from North Korea.”

That means Trump should be willing to go after China’s law-breaking financial institutions. “If the Obama administration was willing to impose heavy fines on Europe’s biggest banks for violating Iran sanctions, the Trump administration must be willing to hold Chinese banks accountable for breaking our laws and U.N. sanctions, too,” says Stanton, who runs the widely followed One Free Korea site.

If we are to take the president and administration officials at their word, the alternative to sanctions enforcement is war. Trump is now talking big on North Korea but acting small. Acting small, in the context of big statements, suggests he has given up. The president, it appears, is no longer trying to avoid war.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.” You can follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.