President Donald Trump’s dismissive comments about the new United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, contrasting sharply with the boasts of his State Department, reflect the harsh reality that a sanctions-driven approach to reversing Pyongyang’s nuclear progress seems increasingly problematic.
That means that Washington is nearing a sobering decision: whether to “contain” a nuclear-armed North Korea or take military action to cripple its nuclear capacity – with all the conflict, bloodshed and chaos that military action could trigger on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.
The Security Council’s unanimous Sept. 11 vote for more sanctions was “just another small step, not a big deal,” Trump said the next day, adding that he doesn’t know whether it will have “any impact.” His comments came as State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the Security Council’s vote “significant” because it triggers “the strongest set” of U.N. sanctions ever imposed on Pyongyang.
Notwithstanding State Department bullishness, Trump has the better argument for two reasons: First, Washington was forced to water down its sanctions proposal to secure Chinese and Russian support and, second, Beijing and Moscow continue to facilitate Pyongyang’s success in evading sanctions to begin with.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Marshall S. Billingslea told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that the new sanctions will cut off “over 55 percent of refined petroleum products” to North Korea, ban “all joint ventures” with that nation, and restrict Pyongyang’s ability to secure revenue from overseas workers.
Fine. But Washington had sought a much stronger set of sanctions that would have included a total oil embargo. To secure Chinese and Russian backing, however, it settled for a cap on oil imports.
Nevertheless, China and Russia’s demands for weaker sanctions almost certainly won’t trigger their full cooperation in enforcing them.
Beijing, which accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s exports, lets Pyongyang use its banking system to continue doing business with the outside world. Consequently, Billingslea told the House committee, the United States lacks “sufficient evidence of China’s willingness to truly shut down North Korean revenue flows, expunge the North Korean illicit actors from its banking system, and expel the North Korean middlemen and brothers who are establishing webs of front companies
Meanwhile, a U.N. panel of experts reported that China is providing support for North Korea’s missile program – the very program that, along with Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, is keeping U.S. officials awake at night. Beijing sent “rocket transporters” to Pyongyang, following its transfer a few years ago of “transporter erector launchers” that are now part of North Korea’s mobile intercontinental ballistic missile system.
Though Pyongyang leans most heavily on Beijing, Moscow has become a major facilitator of its sanctions evasion as well, looking the other way as more tankers travel between the Russian city of Vladivostok and North Korea ports. Russian nationals are creating front companies to deliver oil and other supplies and conceal their own identity. As the Security Council imposes more sanctions, opportunities for such surreptitious activity grow.
To be sure, Washington is responding to such Chinese and Russian perfidy by imposing US. sanctions on the particular individuals and entities that seek to evade the Security Council’s sanctions and work with Pyongyang. In late August, for instance, the Treasury Department “designated” 16 Chinese individuals and entities, isolating them from the U.S. financial system – including three companies that, Billingslea said, were “among the largest importers of North Korean coal.”
Nevertheless, with the Security Council’s vote marking the 11th round of sanctions on North Korea in 11 years, Pyongyang’s nuclear activities and progress are accelerating. Among its 16 missile tests already this year, North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States, launched a missile over Japan and tested its most powerful nuclear device ever.
The pattern of recent decades is clear. The Security Council tightens sanctions, global enforcement wavers, evasion opportunities grow and Pyongyang makes more progress. With no serious prospect of breaking that cycle, Washington is approaching the most consequential of decisions.
The White House claims, in essence, that the president has already decided. National security advisor H.R. McMaster declared over the weekend in reference to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, “He’s going to have to give up his nuclear weapons, because the president has said that he is not going to tolerate this regime threatening the United States and our citizens with a nuclear weapon.”
Maybe so. But when push comes to shove, with Washington forced to take military action to prevent a fully nuclearized Pyongyang, we should expect more Oval Office discussion about the awesome implications.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.