Let’s dissect the effect of sanctions

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Let’s dissect the effect of sanctions

More than a month after North Korea’s Dec. 12 launch of a ballistic missile, the United Nations Security Council last week unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the action and expanding existing sanctions on Pyongyang. North Korea fired back, promising “steps for physical counteraction,” including strengthening its “nuclear deterrence.” Specifically, Pyongyang declared it would conduct nuclear and missile tests with the United States as the target. Predictably, critics warned that the pressure on North Korea was jeopardizing North-South dialogue.

The Security Council action raises several important questions.

Has the Security Council pushed Pyongyang to a nuclear weapons test? The logic in the progressive camp is that North Korea reacts to pressure from the outside world. From this perspective, the resolution will only propel Pyongyang toward escalation. However, this argument is based on the now discredited hypothesis that Pyongyang exists in perpetual crisis, reacting from one development to the next. After two nuclear and numerous missile tests, it should be clear that the consistent objective for North Korea is developing a nuclear weapons capability and the means (missiles) to threaten the United States and its allies.

Sometimes the North explains its provocations as reactions against pressure, sometimes as demonstrations of the regime’s technological prowess. The common denominator is that Pyongyang is moving toward the nuclear weapons capability and status it has sought for at least two decades. Non-action from the Security Council would have had no effect on this.

Does the UNSC resolution jeopardize North-South dialogue? In international diplomacy, nations have to recognize when they are the demander (the nation that needs dialogue) and when they are not. The tone in Seoul think tanks and media over the past six months seems to be that the South needs dialogue more than the North. What would Seoul get from dialogue with the North? Denuclearization is extremely unlikely. The North Korean statement last week declared there will be no talks on denuclearization, but perhaps on peace and stability issues. Would a peace and stability agreement be meaningful if North Korea continued nuclear weapons development?

The reality is that any negotiation on peace and stability would legitimize the North’s nuclear weapons status in exchange for vague statements of principle (no provocations, peaceful coexistence, etc.) that the North would violate when convenient. And what would the North expect to receive? At a minimum they would expect increased economic assistance, legitimacy for the Kim Jong-un regime, and pressure on Japan and the United States to follow suit. North-South dialogue can help with reducing tensions, but it should be clear that Seoul is not the demander. For that reason, there should be no down-payment for dialogue with the North, neither in terms of economic assistance nor hesitation on necessary actions by the international community to condemn North Korean threats to international security.

Does the Security Council resolution put enough pressure on North Korea? The answer is yes and no. China agreed to three important points in the resolution: that the North’s ballistic missile launch is not a peaceful space program and violates previous Council resolutions; that the number of North Korean entities on the sanctions list should be expanded; and that the Council authorizes inspections of suspicious vessels related to the program.

On the other hand, China’s record of implementing previous Security Council sanctions is poor, and as Marcus Noland points out, the authorization of ship inspections falls short of allowing forcible implementation. The resolution’s impact also is diluted by the fact that it took more than a month for the Council to reach consensus, in contrast to previous resolutions. So the Security Council has laid down a marker that North Korea will pay a price for another nuclear test, but probably not enough of a deterrent to stop a test.

This raises the question of whether we are thinking about sanctions in the right way. Ideally, we want to deter North Korea from further nuclear development (and mix that with some inducements as necessary). Yet the odds of diverting the North from its path in the near term are low (through pressure or inducements). Perhaps, then, the first purpose of sanctions should be to minimize the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs by severely restricting Pyongyang’s ability to import dual-use materials.

This would represent more of a counter-proliferation strategy than a nonproliferation strategy. It would involve targeted lines of effort within China aimed at specific entities and not necessarily require international sanctions if Beijing decided to cooperate. The action would be with the Chinese Ministry of State Security and law enforcement, and not necessarily the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the foreseeable future, it would be about reducing risk and threat rather than the more ambitious goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Perhaps our insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament is distracting us from steps necessary to reduce relative risk.

What would motivate Chinese authorities to cooperate in this way? Beijing might find a quieter strategy of intensified but targeted pressure more useful in its own relations with Pyongyang.

China also might be more interested if it were clear the United States, Korea and other nations were prepared to take unilateral steps outside the Security Council process, in concert with each other and not subject to the permanent members’ vetoes.

Of course, this would require an understanding of which party is the demander in relations with China. The Security Council’s action this week was another reminder that North Korea strategy cannot be separated from China strategy.

*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green
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