The sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging the reclusive nation to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programmes. North Korea has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. It has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain sub-regionally confined in range.
Many expect US President Donald Trump to shift course on North Korea, in keeping with what he had said during his election campaign — that he would be willing to meet with its ruler, Kim Jong-un, over a hamburger. The imperative to adopt a new tack, however, is being obscured by developments such as Pyongyang’s first missile test since Trump’s election triumph and the mysterious killing of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Kim Jong-nam, a reputed playboy with residences in Beijing and Macau, was a virtual Chinese pawn against the North Korean ruler, whose relations with Beijing are seriously strained. Kim Jong-un has refused to visit China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.
Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the US to approve the toughest new UN sanctions in two decades against North Korea, Beijing highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang. Indeed, China’s state media has accused Kim Jong-un of pursuing “de-Sinification” of his country and seeking improved ties with the US and Japan.
Kim Jong-un has repeatedly signalled that he wants his country to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival China. Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push him further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with the US. Some US scholars have even suggested a grand bargain with Beijing on North Korea. Given that Pyongyang has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Beijing’s leverage over it, nothing is more galling to North Korea than US efforts to use China as a diplomatic instrument against it.
In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. But China’s enforcement of UN sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim Jong-un’s calculus, although its latest ban on coal imports will inflict more economic pain. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want a reunified and resurgent Korea, because that will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China’s border. Make no mistake: Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.
Sanctions without engagement have never worked. Yet, during his entire eight-year tenure, US President Barack Obama refused to talk to North Korea unless it first pledged to denuclearise. Pyongyang’s only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal with Washington. In the Iran case, however, Obama employed sanctions with engagement to clinch a nuclear deal.
The plain fact is that the US has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade its nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against South Korea, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving the US. The looming US deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD — which has never been battle-tested — is no real answer to North Korea’s nuclearisation or to Pyongyang’s artillery chokehold on Seoul.
If there is any credible US option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with North Korea to formally end the Korean War — which has officially been in a state of ceasefire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearisation is made the sole purpose of engagement with North Korea, diplomacy will fail, as it did under George W Bush.
The Trump administration needs to recognise that the US and its allies have got nowhere by isolating North Korea, which is coping with more severe international sanctions than faced by any other US target. Trump has called North Korea “a big, big problem”. But it is a problem that tests his deal-making skills. In fact, lost in the alarmism over North Korea’s February 12 test of a new missile is that it occurred just after Trump called North Korea a threat.
When repeated rounds of sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, the need for a new approach becomes inescapable. Its goal should be a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice.
Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world’s longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author
The views expressed are personal