With its first successful test on Sunday of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, North Korea stands on the verge of becoming a complete and verifiable nuclear power that poses a direct threat to the United States. This latest act of defiance came just days after the swearing-in of Moon Jae-in as president of South Korea and hours before China’s celebration of a $1 trillion international infrastructure project called “One Belt, One Road.”
Pyongyang’s countless provocations since the Korean War have never set off a meaningful punitive response. Even in egregious cases like assassination attempts against South Korean leaders or the shooting down of an American reconnaissance plane in international airspace in 1969, the United States and its allies have answered with restraint.
Since the early 1990s, American presidents have treated the growing threat of the North Korean nuclear program as a priority — but one to be dealt with later. North Korea’s deep poverty and the apparent clownish nature of its leaders have sustained the illusion that its nuclear program could be bought out, the regime itself could be waited out, and that its largely concealed crimes against humanity could be tuned out.
While the United States has vacillated between expedient deals, halfhearted sanctions, pleas to China for greater intervention and doing nothing, the North has methodically advanced its nuclear arsenal and missile capacity.
Washington’s 1994 deal with North Korea froze its plutonium-based weapons program for eight years, but that agreement came at the price of ignoring that the North was developing all along an alternative uranium-based program. Pyongyang’s first long-range missile test in 1998 led to the Clinton administration’s re-engagement of the North, upon which Washington gave about $300 million worth of food aid in return for inspecting an empty cave suspected of storing nuclear matériel.
The Bush administration showed even less backbone. After Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, in 2006, Washington, distracted by the war in Iraq, lifted targeted financial sanctions on Pyongyang, returned to nuclear talks, turned a blind eye to the North’s construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria, resumed food aid, and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
While the Obama administration was less prone to making concessions, Pyongyang took a great leap forward in its weapons programs by conducting four nuclear tests and four long-range missile tests.
Through each of Pyongyang’s tests, American policy makers have harbored the hope that Beijing would come around and put real pressure on the regimes of Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong-il. But all Beijing has done is demonstrate a disingenuous pattern of diplomatic ambidexterity. China has made token gestures like signing on to United Nations Security Council resolutions while failing to enforce them fully, and at times even increasing trade with Pyongyang.
Although most North Koreans are cut off from the global economy, the regime elite remains beholden to international finance for moving proceeds from weapons trafficking. Pyongyang’s international currency of choice is the United States dollar.
North Korea is the only state known to counterfeit dollars as a matter of state policy. And the United States has largely declined to go after the Kim regime’s money trail because of concerns that doing so would push Pyongyang to escalate its provocations. The United States has also mostly shied away from imposing sanctions on the regime’s Chinese partners.
The Trump administration needs to hit Pyongyang with the kind of devastating targeted financial sanctions — including secondary sanctions against its foreign partners — that brought Iran to the negotiating table. In fact, it is mandated to do so by the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which took effect in 2016.
Pyongyang’s volatility, however, has deterred full enforcement. Sanctions enforcement, like domestic law enforcement, takes much work and time. Even a full-throttled effort is unlikely to yield results in the first couple of years. But until the United States inflicts a hard financial blow on the Kim regime by freezing its funds in offshore accounts, Washington will lack sufficient leverage for negotiations to be effective.
With equal determination, the United States should overhaul its efforts to reach the North Korean people. Pyongyang does its best to block information, censor speech and monopolize knowledge. The state’s invasive practices range from lifelong ideological indoctrination to life-ending punishment for thought crimes like watching video recordings of South Korean dramas or using illegal Chinese cellular phones.
Yet the United States budget for radio broadcasting into North Korea via Voice of America and Radio Free Asia has diminished over the past decade. Such broadcasts make a difference: Approximately three-quarters of North Koreans who fled to freedom in the South in 2009 had been exposed to foreign media.
The United States must sustain these efforts until the Kim regime’s denuclearization and dismantling of gulags are verified. The regime will step away from its nuclear program only when sustained financial pressure creates the specter of revolt or regime collapse, at which point Washington must negotiate a way out for the Kims.
Any agreement with Pyongyang short of these measures or premature relaxation of sanctions would mean yet again placing blind trust in the Kim regime’s good faith.
Sung-Yoon Lee is an assistant professor of Korean studies at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.