The Corner

Upping the Ante on North Korea

U.N. Security Council resolutions are almost always a waste of time, but not always, and yesterday’s resolution presents North Korea with a major problem, and represents an escalation point in the continuing crisis. Just a few days ago, when the resolution was presented before the Council in draft form, North Korea issued a new threat, using the words “offensive” and “nuclear” in the same sentence maybe for the first time:

“Our nuclear deterrent will be a strong defensive means . . . as well as a merciless offensive means to deal a just retaliatory strike to those who touch the country’s dignity and sovereignty even a bit,” the state-run Minju Joson newspaper said in commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Well it seems to me that today’s Security Council Resolution 1874 touches North Korea’s dignity and sovereignty more than a little bit. In operative paragraphs 11, 12, and 13 the Council “calls upon all States to inspect all cargo to and from the DPRK, in their territory, including seaports and airports” if the State has information that any banned materials may be aboard; it further calls on States to inspect suspect vessels on the high seas, if the “flag State” consents; and if the “flag State” does not consent, it arguably empowers states to force the vessel to any convenient port for inspection. (The “flag State” could of course be North Korea). The Council also commands North Korea to halt a range of activities (but of course that’s only worth the paper it’s written on).

Several key points to consider:

* The economic assistance provided to North Korea under the Six-Party agreements — all told, about 100 million tons of fuel oil and equivalents — has run dry.

* That economic assistance, which was provided by the U.S., South Korea, Russia, and China (Japan refused to give any money until North Korea’s kidnappings of Japanese citizens were resolved) was significantly less than the money provided to North Korea by some of the same parties during the Clinton-era Agreed Framework and the early years of the Bush presidency.

* China has come closer to the U.S. position on North Korea, and South Korea has come under the control of a conservative, pro-American government, tightening the noose around Kim Jong-Il’s neck.

* The continuing effects of the U.S. Treasury’s designation of Banco Delta Asia as a money-laundering institution — which irreversibly caused banks around the world to curtail their dealings with North Korea and adopt “know your customer” due diligence to avoid winding up in BDA’s shoes — have severely limited North Korea’s access to the international financial system, especially for money-laundering of its far-flung and vital illicit activities.

* North Korea’s other major source of income is nuclear blackmail (first the Agreed Framework, then the Six Party Talks). When it needs more money it rattles its cage, fires off some missiles, blows a nuclear warhead up under a mountain — and even sentences innocent American girls to 12 years hard-labor, which is a farce: they are just being held to increase the ransom. Alas, unless we are willing to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars, they are not likely to be released.

* For these reasons, it is possible that North Korea’s economic situation is now so desperate, that North Korea is willing to go further than ever before in forcing the U.S., China, and others to pay up. Another nuclear test — or perhaps a military strike or other kind of attack against some nation — could be imminent.

* So far, however, the five countries that form the iron cage around North Korea — the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea — have maintained a united front, with China and Russia voting in favor of a surprisingly provocative Security Council resolution.

It is imperative that the united front not be broken, as Henry Kissinger has recently argued. But it will not be easy — this is nuclear blackmail, after all. We may have to throw North Korea a few crumbs, because if we drive it to the brink of collapse, China could be faced with a massive refugee crisis at its border and we could be facing a nuclear-armed madman with nothing left to lose. The end of North Korea is inevitable, as experts acknowledge, but it has to be managed: We need to keep tightening the screws until the regime is willing to negotiate itself or its nuclear weapons out of existence.

On the other hand, let’s be clear about what it means to back down on the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. If we confirm the awful precedent established by Bill Clinton in 1994 — namely that any criminal regime can have nuclear weapons and we will not strike the facilities while they are in development — we are begging for catastrophe. The stakes are high in the North Korea nuclear showdown, and the Security Council just upped the ante.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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