In a previous era, the death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, at the hands of the regime in North Korea likely would have been considered an act of war. On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was detained by regime officials, allegedly for attempting to steal a propaganda poster. Convicted of a “hostile act” against the state, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Upon his release into U.S. custody last week, regime officials said that he had been in a coma for nearly 15 months, and blamed a case of botulism. In reality, Warmbier was almost certainly tortured to death by the regime.
What happened to Otto Warmbier is what has been happening to North Korean citizens for more than 70 years, since Kim Il-sung transformed the new country into what it is today: a hermetically sealed prison state operated by a hereditary dictatorship that some scholars estimate has murdered around 1.5 million people in its network of concentration camps. Those not executed by the regime have fared little better: The country is beset by malnourishment and starvation (a famine in the mid 1990s killed half a million people); its GDP per capita is somewhere south of $1,000, putting North Korea behind Rwanda, Haiti, and Sierra Leone globally; and its shoddy infrastructure causes fires that can be seen from space.
None of these issues has ever been of much concern to the Kim regime, now in its third generation. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, is dedicated to building up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has been alarmingly successful in pursuing that end. The regime has missiles that can reach Japan, and reportedly is not far from being able to strike the continental U.S. North Korea is also already exporting terror in less explosive ways. The regime is responsible for several devastating cyber attacks (recently, North Korean hackers paralyzed the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, as well as industries in 150 other countries), and Kim Jong-un successfully had an estranged member of the family assassinated in Kuala Lumpur in February, in broad daylight. Meanwhile, Pyongyang maintains friendly, mutually beneficial relationships with other terror-loving regimes, including Iran and Cuba.
The fact that North Korea is now a nuclear-armed state is in no small part a consequence of nearly three decades of ill-conceived American and international policy. The last three administrations all hoped to engage the regime in constructive agreements, usually providing some form(s) of aid in exchange for promises to halt the construction of nuclear weapons. The theory was that the aid would help to facilitate economic and ultimately political liberalization.
It has not worked out that way, largely because the regime in Pyongyang is not a trustworthy partner. The Kim regime cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which it received aid in exchange for halting plutonium and uranium enrichment; in 2002, it unilaterally withdrew from the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; the regime reneged on its part in an agreement hammered out by the Bush administration in 2007 after less than a year; and Kim Jong-un violated the terms of the 2012 Leap Day agreement after just six weeks by testing a long-range missile.
But it’s also been a case of inconsistent, and often incoherent, American policy. Given the fact that the North Korean economy is almost entirely administered by the regime, these agreements have frequently meant that the U.S. is simultaneously sanctioning and subsidizing Pyongyang, and irregular enforcement by the U.S. Treasury Department took much of the bite out of the sanctions side.
North Korea’s brazen murder of an American citizen is reason to reevaluate.
Last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which mandated sanctions on entities that have contributed to North Korea’s nuclear program or are complicit in its human-rights abuses, and on the country’s mineral and metal trade (a key source of the regime’s hard currency). The Trump administration should expand on this foundation.
Start with the banks. Since 2007, the U.S. has allowed North Korean financial transactions to flow more or less unencumbered through the U.S. banking system. Because almost all transactions in U.S. dollars pass through U.S. banks, the Treasury Department could, if it wishes, effectively end North Korea’s access to the dollar system, by supplementing the sanctions on North Korean banks imposed by current law with secondary sanctions on any banks that transact with North Korea. When the U.S. did this from 2005 to 2007, banks around the world — including in China — froze or closed North Korean accounts rather than risk their access to the U.S. financial system. Secondary sanctions are crucial to squeezing the regime. Pyongyang’s power relies on a network of bad actors: China launders its money, Iran buys its weapons, Cambodia re-flags its ships (which are smuggling the weapons). The U.S. must be willing to enforce sanctions against these actors, too.
While the U.S. more aggressively goes after the assets of North Korea’s elites — currently, only about 200 North Korean entities have had their assets frozen, compared to about 400 in Cuba and more than 800 in Iran — it could also agitate to have North Korean banks kicked out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, reducing its access to the global financial infrastructure. In 2012, the U.S. successfully pressured SWIFT to expel Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. should be pressuring Europe, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, to stop employing North Korean slave laborers. As many as 100,000 North Koreans have been sent abroad by the regime (guess who’s building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar?), and defectors report that the regime confiscates 90 percent of their wages when they return home.
On the diplomatic front, North Korea receives an undeserved imprimatur as a member of the United Nations; the Trump administration should work to expel it, as well as from its other international memberships (e.g., the ASEAN Regional Forum and the International Olympic Committee). The State Department should also restore its designation as a state sponsor of terror, removed by the Bush administration in 2008.
And militarily? There are no good military options when it comes to North Korea, it’s true; setting aside the threat of a nuclear response, the North could wreak havoc on some of its neighbors just with conventional arms. But the U.S. can still wield a big stick. The idea that North Korea will stand down if the U.S. reduces its activity around the Korean Peninsula has been decisively proven false, so the U.S. should not hesitate to flex its muscle. The U.S. and South Korea should continue with joint military exercises. Meanwhile, the White House should work to strengthen missile-defense capacities throughout the region. The decision by South Korea’s newly elected president Moon Jae-in to suspend further deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system pending an environmental-impact assessment may be a precursor to rejecting THAAD altogether; the White House should work with President Moon to make sure that does not happen. The administration should also be working to strengthen its relationship with Japan.
Finally, it should go without saying that the United States should be working from the inside to subvert the regime.
It is persistently remarked that North Korea will never change until China stops shielding it, and there’s truth to that. But the United States has leverage, nonetheless, and especially now. And China’s position may be wavering: There are reports that Beijing is considering distancing itself from Pyongyang, and a younger generation of leaders in the Communist party is not at all convinced that bolstering North Korea is, in the long run, worth the trouble. These are pressure points that the United States can exploit.
There is no such thing as a “manageable” nuclear North Korea; ultimately, the Kim family and its crime syndicate must go. The U.S. should recognize the murderous regime in Pyongyang for what it is, and respond accordingly.