Seizing North Korean ships threatens to sink diplomacy

Seizing North Korean ships threatens to sink diplomacy
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When the Department of Justice recently announced the seizure of a North Korean merchant vessel for breach of sanctions, it profoundly shook diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis. Sadly, this unprecedented and exceptionally long-armed use of sanctions will not help disarm North Korea. Instead, it will only undermine the chances for a peaceful resolution of the current standoff.

Pyongyang predictably reacted with defiance, denouncing the seizure as an unlawful violation of its sovereignty. On May 14, it demanded the return of its ship. On May 18, it filed a complaint with the secretary-general of the United Nations. Then, on May 21, it convened a press conference at the U.N., condemning the seizure “in the strongest terms” and interpreting it as evidence of “the extreme hostile policy of the United States.”

The danger here is not a lawsuit. Pyongyang cannot compel Washington to appear before the International Court of Justice against its will. A U.N. organ could theoretically prompt an advisory opinion by the court, but the reality of U.N. politics makes this highly implausible.

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Instead, the danger today is that pressure like the ship seizure could destroy the space for dialogue carved out by the first U.S.-North Korea summit last June. Pyongyang called the incident an “outright denial” of the spirit of the resulting Joint Statement, also known as the “Singapore declaration.”

The Joint Statement is not a binding document, so Pyongyang’s point here was not law but reciprocity. In other words, it was warning that it may not honor its commitment to denuclearization if Washington ignored the clause on establishing “new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desires of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnUS proposed helping North Korea build tourist area amid nuclear talks: report Kim poses for photos on white horse on sacred mountain, plans 'great operation' Beware the 34th month of Trump's presidency MORE denounced in an April 12 speech two other U.S. actions as “hostile moves contrary to the spirit of the June 12 Joint Statement.” First is a “test for simulated interception of our intercontinental ballistic missile,” which apparently pertained to a March 25 U.S. missile defense test. Second is “the resumed military exercises the U.S. president committed himself to suspending,” a reference to the new “Dong Maeng” exercises. 

In the same speech, Kim warned he would take countermeasures, as surely “as waves rise when wind blows.” Apparently, he chose for the first “wave” to test-fire three short-range projectiles. Analysts have suggested these are new nuclear-capable missiles designed to pierce through South Korean missile defense systems. 

Tellingly, Washington and Seoul decided to downplay the North Korean tests. Tit-for-tat escalation would directly threaten the informal but oft-repeated quid pro quo that makes negotiations possible. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE promised Kim that he would not conduct U.S.-ROK military exercises, and Kim that he would not test long-range missiles.

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Perhaps North Korea is putting up a façade and is actually about to cave under the weight of sanctions. Perhaps targeting North Korean merchant vessels will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. After all, a recent U.N. report highlighted the role of these ships in sanctions evasion.

There are, however, at least two compelling reasons to think that won’t be the case.

Firstly, China has always provided just enough help to prop up its neighbor and formal military ally. The rapid deterioration of Sino-American relations only reinforces the incentives for China to maintain this turbulent garrison-state.

Secondly, North Korea’s totalitarian political system allows it to hold onto its nuclear policy even in the face of catastrophic instability, like the 1990s famine that killed half a million people. There is plenty of evidence sanctions are hurting North Koreans, but none that they are changing policy.

There is no military solution to the nuclear crisis. North Korea is capable of firing nuclear weapons 10 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb on South Korea, Japan, and now perhaps as far as New York.

The only real way out is a consensual agreement achieving at least some military de-escalation and arms control. Kim said in his April speech that he would wait until the end of the year for Trump to come up with a deal “with fair clauses that conform to the interests of both sides.” 

Seizing North Korean ships at this time is dangerously counterproductive. It risks restarting the deadly cycle of North Korean weapon tests and American “fire and fury” threats that pushed us to the brink of nuclear war in 2017.

Henri Féron is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Follow him on Twitter @henriferon.