The Groundhog Day of North Korean sanctions
It's never worked before. What makes anyone think it will work now?
An important anniversary is coming up soon. I hope you have your calendars marked and your schedules free to celebrate in the manner you see fit. Because nearly 11 years ago, on Oct. 14, 2006, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to pass sanctions on North Korea in response to the Hermit Kingdom's claim to have tested nuclear weapons.
President George W. Bush promised that the international community's reaction to North Korea's atomic ambitions would be "tough" and "swift." In response, a North Korean diplomat stormed out of the council chamber, declaring that he was interpreting the sanctions as "an act of war." Pointing to the empty chair, John Bolton, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that the council's actions constituted a "clear and strong message."
What exactly was the message? That we don't want North Korea to have nukes? Clearly they didn't check their voicemail. Here we are getting ready to observe the Steel Anniversary of our firm commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula by ... passing more sanctions following their test of a hydrogen bomb and detonation of a missile over northern Japan?
For as long as I can remember, the announcement of sanctions on the authoritarian Kim regime in response to weapons tests has seemed like a predictably regular occurrence, like the leaves changing color in autumn or a celebrity groundhog looking for its shadow in February. Either we or the U.N. did it at least once in 2009 (on North Korean banking in response to a nuclear test), in 2010, in 2012, in 2013 (also on banking in response to, yes, a nuclear test), in 2015 (following the embarrassing hacking of Sony), in 2016, and we've already done it several times in 2017. In practice, all these announcements mean is that we add one or two more names to a list of persons and entities in North Korea with whom it is illegal to do business. In case you're wondering, yes, you can still basically do business in North Korea as an American as long as you avoid the proscribed names and sell something other than caviar or yachts or fancy purses.
It's time to admit that these sanctions are, as a well-known Russian diplomatist pointed out recently, "useless." The whole point of economic sanctions is to bring pressure on a country's rulers by hurting its economy. That won't work when a country has no economy capable of being wrecked — or rather, when its rulers have already done far more harm to it with their own greed and foolishness than foreign actors could ever dream of.
North Korea is not Iran. Its leaders have nothing to lose — or at least nothing to lose that we are capable of taking away. Kim Jong Un is not buying his wine and cheese from Whole Foods. The quasi-royal extended Kim family and a small class of bureaucrats and military personnel will continue to enjoy a reasonable standard of living while the vast majority of the population starves no matter how many sanctions we and our allies pass.
This is because in its small way, North Korea is a part of the global economy. Never mind China's $3.5 billion in reported exports to its old ally, or the smaller but still crucial acknowledged business relationships North Korea has with Pakistan, Russia, Thailand, and the Philippines, among other spotlessly humane above-the-fray participants in our international community. Even if that all went away tomorrow, there would be still be a thriving black market in North Korea for luxuries, oil, food, electronics, and clothing, as there is today. No one knows how much crude oil China sells them and probably no one ever will.
The truth is that China, the glorious communist empire whose wage slaves make our fancy gadgets, doesn't want things to change. Sure, it pains them to have to deal with the (at least for now only metaphorical) fallout from Kim Jong Un's bizarre and aggressive behavior. It's embarrassing — but in the sense that your slightly obnoxious great uncle is embarrassing. You still love Uncle Phil and you're not going to let his semi-annual off-color remarks at holiday dinners get in the way of a beautiful friendship grounded in a mutual dislike of your younger sister.
China has never wavered from its commitment to a divided Korean Peninsula half-ruled by a despot beholden to Beijing. They want North Korea intact as a strategic bulwark against NATO and Japan and South Korea — which is to say, against us.
What China does not want is a war in which it is forced to take the side of North Korea against the United States, the end result of which would almost certainly be, among other things, the end of the current regime in Pyongyang. Which is why it is in their best interest every bit as much as it is in ours to ensure that Kim's nuclear program does not continue to exist except at the level of an empty threat. As Liu Jieyi, China's U.N. envoy, said recently, "China will never allow chaos and war on the peninsula."
What the long-term diplomatic solution to North Korea might look like is anyone's guess. I am not holding my breath any more than Vladimir Putin is for it to come from the United States. But what the solution isn't ought to be clear to everyone who's been paying even cursory attention to the news for the last 11 years.