New Year, Same North Korea…Or Can It Change?

The leader of the kingdom of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, brought in the new year by announcing in a new year’s televised address that “The United States should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table.”

So 2018 starts with the Trump Administration facing same problem that previous administrations have faced regarding the nuclear ambitions of the rogue North Korean regime. North Korea has continued its testing of both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in recent years, and escalated its efforts over the last two years.  Several US administrations have failed to stop the development of nuclear weapons, so that North Korea now seems that it will shortly have nuclear warheads that can be delivered by ballistic missiles.

As an international pariah, with its leader willing to starve his own people to keep his nuclear weapons program and already having ignored international opinion and sanctions for decades, the thought of North Korea with nuclear weapons is frightening.  Differing from the previous Administration, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has said that the US will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea and has worked to ratchet up sanctions.  After North Korea’s last test, new sanctions including limits on the amount of oil North Korea can import, which is the last significant prop holding up the regime’s industry and military.   And Haley has been able to get China and the Soviet Union to agree.

Sanctions haven’t worked until now, and it’s not like economic sanctions haven’t been tried for more than a decade.   Yet, there may be changes in the wind.

Today, for the first time in several years, North Korea has agreed to direct talks with South Korea.  The meeting will be next week and initially will be about North Korean participation in the Winter Olympic Games being hosted by South Korea this year.  But even such as simple thing as that may be a sign of progress since North Korea had previously said it wouldn’t participate in protest.

But why now?  Why the change?  Well, there could be a reason.

Earlier this week, South Korea announced that it had seized a ship that was transferring oil to North Korea, outside of the UN agreed upon sanctions.  This was in addition to a Hong Kong-based tanker, the Lighthouse Winmore, which was seized in November after the South Korean Foreign Ministry said that the ship had left a South Korean port with refined oil and then transferred it to a North Korean tanker in international waters.  The US Treasury Department also released satellite images showing the transfer.

Sanctions have not worked.  But up until now, they have not been enforced by a willingness to blockade North Korea to enforce them.   The US and its allies closet to the potential hotspot, South Korea and Japan, are more closely aligned on taking a tough line than ever before.  And China, North Korea’s main supplier of resources, has now at least joined in voting for increased sanctions.  With China being the only overland route, this agreement is key if it’s more than lip service.

A blockade of North Korea to enforce sanctions is long overdue.  Yet, our allies South Korea and Japan are more aligned on a tougher line than ever before.  And it seems that China and Russia have been brought on board.   Yet as the pressure increases, we can bet that North Korea will offer ‘concessions’ to buy time and to get relief.  But that has been the problem before—let up on North Korea before there is real change.  Vigorous enforcement, by way of a blockade, will be key to bringing North Korea to the table…but being at the table is not the goal.  And that is important to keep in mind.  Making sure outlaw countries like North Korea never get nuclear weapons is the goal and there should be no let up until that happens.

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