The North Korean government wants to talk. On Saturday morning, displaying its signature defiance and smokescreen strategy, it fired off its eastern coast what the South Korean military called short-range “projectiles.” The drill was its first rocket launch to be detected since November 2017, when it fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.) capable of striking the United States.
A brief period of measured hope had followed the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Singapore last June. But Saturday’s provocation leaves no doubt that, once again, the government in Pyongyang is gradually, and very deliberately, escalating tensions to build up its leverage with the United States — this time with a view to resetting the terms of stalled negotiations.
Signs that a move of this type might be in the offing had multiplied in recent weeks, especially since the failure of the United States-North Korea summit meeting in Hanoi in February. In a policy address on April 12, Mr. Kim said, “I think we shouldn’t obsess with a summit with the United States only because we are thirsty for sanctions relief,” adding, “We will no longer obsess over lifting sanctions imposed by the hostile forces, but we will open the path to economic prosperity through our own means.” The first vice foreign minister of North Korea recently dismissed comments by John R. Bolton, the United States national security adviser, as “dim-sighted”; she called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that America might change course with North Korea if negotiations over denuclearization broke down, “foolish and dangerous.”
Last week, Mr. Kim had his first summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. His visit to Vladivostok may have looked like a minor fund-raising mission designed to help North Korea bypass sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations Security Council. But it was a major strategic countermove against the United States.
Mr. Kim was, in effect, creating a shield for himself by restoring to Russia, whose influence in the region waned after the end of the Cold War, its traditional role as North Korea’s defender and a counterweight to the United States-led alliance with Japan and South Korea.
The decision to launch short-range projectiles on Saturday, instead of another I.C.B.M., also was carefully calibrated. It created the illusion that a more severe crisis had been averted while threatening to bring on one of those next — unless, that is, the United States backs down.
As counterintuitive as this point might seem, the Kim government’s provocations give both China (which seems on the verge of concluding a deal to end its trade war with America) and Russia (now better poised to play spoiler) incentives to make the case for relaxing sanctions against North Korea, and all for the sake of de-escalation. In the meantime, the government in Pyongyang will just forge ahead with its nuclear and I.C.B.M. programs.
The Kim regime has long held South Korea and Japan hostage to the threat of conventional artillery and missiles. Now, it is on the cusp of holding the United States hostage to nuclear blackmail.
Over the years, the United States has unwittingly played into North Korea’s hand by displaying a persistent mix of arrogance, ignorance and incoherence. The North Korean government — however poor, paranoid and apparently volatile — is anything but capricious or unpredictable.
America has underestimated North Korea since the first days of the Korean War. Once news broke that Kim Il-sung, Mr. Kim’s grandfather, had ordered the North’s invasion of the South in June 1950, the Truman administration assumed that the move was a prelude to a vaster, coordinated expansionist plan masterminded by the Communists in Moscow and Beijing. An official in the State Department is said to have compared the relationship between Stalin and Kim Il-sung to that between Walt Disney and Donald Duck. But after Soviet archives were opened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it became clear that the war had been Kim Il-sung’s idea, and that he had repeatedly pleaded with both Stalin and Mao to support his bid to take over the whole of the Korean Peninsula.
History, in other words, demonstrates that the North Korean government has both an offensive and a defensive game plan, and that it sticks to an established playbook.
History also shows that while North Korea is vulnerable to targeted financial sanctions, the United States, as I have written before, hasn’t put its full weight behind a sufficiently severe sanctions program. Between 1995 and 2008, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations even handed the government in Pyongyang some $1.3 billion in assistance, largely in the form of food and energy.
Contrary to the popular myth — blithely repeated by pundits, journalists and policymakers — North Korea is not the most heavily sanctioned nation on earth. And it still isn’t after tighter penalties were imposed on it in February 2016, largely for lack of enforcement.
Sanctions today are smart weapons, unlike the clunky, one-dimensional prototypes of the Cold War. In its efforts to clamp down on terrorist funding, the Treasury Department discovered that financial sanctions aimed at both one’s primary target and its partners can be highly effective tools of pressure. (Fines on banks and companies that were doing business with Iran were one reason its government returned to the negotiating table in 2013.) Yet, North Korea still “enjoys ongoing access to the international financial system,” according to a March report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions.
Because the dollar accounts for nearly 62 percent of all foreign exchange reserves worldwide, the United States government has tremendous leverage: It can freeze the offshore assets of the North Korean leadership, as well as fine in the billions of dollars any third parties that enable it.
The United States government should enforce existing sanctions unflinchingly — and pass new ones, as needed, such as the bipartisan Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act — before agreeing to resume serious talks with Mr. Kim. At this point, only the bite of extremely heavy financial pressure might force him to recalibrate his priorities. Sanctions can work; the United States simply made the mistake last year, after Mr. Kim’s diplomatic outreach, of relaxing too soon the tougher penalties it had recently put in place.
But this weekend’s test proves that Mr. Kim remains undeterred. He is eager for talks; the United States should deny him the privilege. If it returns to concessionary diplomacy now, North Korea will only continue to inch its way toward the fulfillment of its raison d’être: To become the dominant state on the Korean Peninsula and eventually, it hopes, the only one.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.