The complaint about the U.N. Security
Council’s new sanctions against North Korea is that they
aren’t strict enough to force Kim Jong-un to dismantle his
nuclear program. But here’s the thing: Nothing is going to force
him to do that.
It’s time to recognize that North Korea is a nuclear power—small
and not fully tested but a nuclear power nonetheless—and that, as
with other nuclear powers, the most effective ways to deal with
it are through deterrence and diplomacy. Any other course is the
stuff of delusions.
There are several reasons why Kim would be loath to give up his
nukes. First, they are all he has. For a tiny, impoverished
country amid several large, rich ones (“a shrimp among whales,”
as Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder and Kim Jong-un’s
grandfather, put it), nukes can stave off a wide range of
Second, Kim follows the news. He saw what happened to Saddam
Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi when they gave up their nuclear
programs, whether through force or conciliation: They were
invaded or overthrown anyway. Kim is no doubt also aware of
what’s happening with the Iranian nuclear deal: The Iranians
agreed to dismantle the country’s nuclear program, in exchange
for lifting sanctions; the International Atomic Energy Agency has
verified that they’re abiding by the deal’s terms, yet President
Donald Trump says that he might claim they’re not and reimpose
the sanctions anyway. Given all this recent history, no one in
Kim’s position would outright surrender his one source of
leverage and power.
Finally, economic sanctions have their limits, especially with a
dictator who has little concern for the health or wealth of his
citizens. Kim, his entourage, and certain party officials enjoy
luxuries, while most of his country’s 25 million people live in
abject poverty. Two million are believed to have died in a famine
in the 1990s. The Kim dynasty did not suffer.
The sanctions levied by the U.N. Security Council on Monday are
far-reaching. They ban textile exports from North Korea and the
sale of natural gas to North Korea; set a cap on refined
petroleum imports, to the point of cutting the country’s current
consumption by about 10 percent; and allow inspections of ships
suspected of carrying fuel or weapons into North Korean harbors.
These measures fall short of what the Trump administration had
pushed for: a ban on refined petroleum imports, the right to
board suspected ships with arms, and a freezing of Kim’s personal
assets. But Trump’s tougher sanctions were never going to pass,
and since the United States conducts no trade with North Korea,
we need the approval of those who do conduct trade, especially
China. The dilemma here is that China wants to punish North Korea
for its atomic antics but not so much that the regime might
collapse. If it did collapse, China would face a humanitarian
crisis in its scantly populated northeast territories, as
millions of North Koreans would stream across the border. A
collapse would also mean U.S. air and naval forces would no
longer be holed up in northeast Asia and could thus redeploy to
the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, which are China’s most
Conceivably, Kim might do or say something so reckless that
Chinese leaders recalculate their strategic priorities. But
according to U.S. military and intelligence officials who follow
China closely, there’s no evidence that any such shift is in the
In other words, given the geostrategic context, sanctions are
always going to be halfhearted at best.
The Washington Post’s David
Ignatius reported recently that Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson has been holding quiet discussions with his
counterparts in China and Russia about resuming some sort of
talks with North Korea about its nuclear program. German
Merkel has said that, if these talks do get underway,
she wants a seat at the table too.
This makes sense. If North Korea is now a nuclear power, having
tested high-yield bombs and missiles with the range to strike our
Asian allies and possibly slices of the continental United
States, then we need to talk, even if talking doesn’t yield much.
In a fascinating article for the New
Osnos described a recent trip to Pyongyang, where, among
other things, he talked at length with senior officials of the
North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies.
What struck me most was how little even these officials
understand about American politics, culture, and attitudes. And,
of course, this ignorance and misapprehension is reciprocated in
the Trump administration, which, besides other shortcomings, has
not yet nominated an assistant secretary of state or defense for
East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The United States could deploy an impressive array of military
forces designed to persuade Kim not to attack us or our allies.
In other words, we can mount an effective deterrent. The South
Korean government, which otherwise advocates peaceful détente
between the two countries, announced on Sept. 4 that it was
creating a “decapitation
unit”—a special brigade whose sole mission is to kill Kim in
the event of war.* The Seoul officials announced this
publicly because the very knowledge of this brigade could have a
deterrent effect on Kim’s actions.
But wars sometimes erupt through accidents and misunderstandings,
and one way to ward off that possibility is diplomacy. Trump and
Kim are never going to be friends (and if Trump thinks they might
be, he should forget about it at once), but talks have their
value—if just to explore what the various sides in the
Also, even if we can’t force or persuade the North Koreans to get
rid of their nuclear arsenal, maybe we can push them to freeze or
otherwise limit its size. They are said to have about 20 nuclear
weapons (or the making of 20 weapons). Better 20 than 100 or 200,
which wouldn’t be impossible if they keep churning them out
North Korean officials have said they would freeze their nuclear
program in exchange for a suspension of U.S.–South Korean
military exercises. This is a bad idea: What the U.S. needs to
do, now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, is to shore up its
cooperation—military and otherwise—with its allies in the region,
especially with South Korea, which the North has long wanted to
But maybe there are other lures for which the North would agree
to freeze its program. There’s no way to find out but to find
out. The guaranteed way not to find out—or to accomplish anything
that might keep Pyongyang in check—is to pretend that nothing has
changed. There’s no magic chokehold to make Kim Jong-un scream
“Uncle!” and succumb to all our wishes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.