TIPP: Engaging North Korea beyond sanctions will require new thinking

By TIPPINSIGHTS EDITORIAL BOARD, TIPP Insights

A few days ago, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which fell in the waters off the northern island of Hokkaido, in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The ICBM Hwasong-17 reached a maximum altitude of 3,750 miles and traveled 621 miles “before accurately landing on the preset area in open waters of the East Sea of Korea.” Japanese Defense Ministry opined that had the missile been fired in a normal trajectory, it would have had a range of 9,000 miles. The U.S. falls within that range.

On Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that his ultimate goal is to possess the world’s most powerful nuclear force. Kim announced this while promoting dozens of military officers involved in North Korea’s largest ballistic missile launch. He claimed the Hwasong-17 was the “world’s strongest strategic weapon” and that it demonstrated North Korea’s resolve and ability to eventually build the world’s strongest army.

Kim Jong-Un has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapon development after opting out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement in 2003. According to the North Korean dictator, nuclear power ensures the nation’s survival. He categorizes U.S.-South Korea relations, joint military drills, and American bases in the region as active threats to North Korean sovereignty. His goal is deterrence and to achieve strike capabilities that have the United States in its crosshairs.

Has the Supreme Leader achieved his goal? Will he stand down now or continue testing missiles with higher capabilities and nuclear warheads? Only Kim Jong-Un has the answers.

For over a decade, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has brought international condemnation to the Asian country. The world powers have fired their tried-and-failed salvo – economic sanctions.

The U.N. imposed sanctions, imposed a cap on oil and refined petroleum products; prohibited natural gas imports; restricted fishing rights; curbed North Korean labor exports; and restricted industries like coal, minerals, wood, and textiles. Besides, trade of dual-use technologies, arms and military equipment, industrial machinery, and metals is banned. Scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea is also restricted. Additionally, America has imposed unilateral sanctions that further curb economic activities. A long list of individuals and businesses with ties to the country’s nuclear program has been brought under the sanctions gambit.

More than a decade later, it is hard to deny that the economic sanctions have failed. The impact on the dictator and his regime has been pretty much zero. Instead of deterring the North Korean leader, sanctions have spurred him to continue his pursuit of nuclear arms. More aggressive and provocative than ever, each missile test has emboldened the dictator. With both Moscow and Beijing siding with Pyongyang, it is doubtful that sanctions will do the job. Illicit trade, especially with China and African ports, is thriving.

As in the case with most international economic sanctions, it is the people of North Korea who have suffered. While the country’s elite remains unscathed, the humanitarian cost is hard to ignore. Though verified reports are hard to come by from Pyongyang, the U.N. estimates that half the population is malnourished. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. International sanctions also mean that it is nearly impossible to get humanitarian aid to those in dire need. There have been unverified reports of severe famine and rising unemployment.

Calls for stricter enforcement and harsher, more far-reaching sanctions have risen from a few quarters. The idea of penalizing other nations that do business with North Korea has been mooted. More sanctions will not prevail on Kim Jong-Un to embrace denuclearization.

The North Korean leader is a dictator; that is to say, he is not very concerned with the plight of his people. The suffering of his people and crumbling economy mean nothing in the face of dogmatic power and absolute control. With Kim Jong-Un’s habit of answering a threat with a bigger one, military exercises and pacts with Pyongyang’s neighbors have only made the situation more volatile.

At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday, the U.S. and its allies condemned North Korea’s recent intercontinental ballistic missile launch (ICBM). Russian and Chinese resistance prevented the Security Council from responding to North Korea’s latest actions.

The Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. told the Security Council that it “should play a constructive role on this issue and should not always condemn or exert pressure” on North Korea. That the suggestion came from Beijing, a country shielding the North Korean leader, has not gone unnoticed. But the ambassador’s suggestion may be worth exploring.

Since threats and economic sanctions have failed to find their target, perhaps, it is time to talk to Pyongyang as an equal. Recall that President Trump held two high-level summits with Kim Jong-Un. Taking away the threat of sanctions while pursuing diplomatic discussions may allay the dictator’s fears that the U.S. is plotting to unseat him.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Out-of-the-box thinking is necessary to loosen the new Russia-China-North Korea “axis of evil” threatening stability in many parts of the globe. For that, world leaders will first have to learn to deal with a national leader like Kim Jong-Un.

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