Just last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the United Nations Security Council that the era of letting North Korea call the shots was over. Commenting on a record in which North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006, two of them just last year, Tillerson said: "For too long the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea." He added, "Those days must come to an end. Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences."
Yet here we are, with Reuters reporting, based on a news conference held Friday in Beijing by senior State Department official Susan Thornton, that the U.S. is "looking at discussing with China a new Security Council resolution on pre-negotiated measures to reduce delays in any response to further nuclear tests or other provocations from the North."
In other words, the U.S. is waiting to react to North Korea's next nuclear test, which North Korean officials have already threatened to carry out, and for which preparations have been visibly underway.
With the variation that the diplomatic response (providing China agrees) would be "pre-negotiated," this sounds disturbingly similar to the ritual that President Obama's administration dolled up under the fatuous label of "strategic patience." The result, on Obama's watch, was that North Korea carried out four of its five nuclear tests to date, and accelerated its missile program to include over the past three years — as The Wall Street Journal reported recently — the launches of "more major missiles than in the three previous decades combined."
The Obama ritual went like this: North Korea would carry out a forbidden nuclear test (in 2009, 2013, and two in 2016). The U.S. would turn to the UN Security Council, which after a period of closed-door wrangling would respond by approving yet another sanctions resolution, which would then be advertised by the U.S. as tough… tougher… toughest. Whatever.
Recall America's former ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, declaring after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 in March 2016 (in response to North Korea's fourth nuclear test) that “this resolution is so comprehensive, there are many provisions that leave no gap, no window.” That resolution was followed last September by North Korea's fifth nuclear test, to which the UN responded by adding to the gapless, windowless sanctions resolution #2270 the even more gapless and windowless resolution #2321.
One might reasonably ask: Why reserve all those ever tougher sanctions for North Korea's next nuclear test, or the one after that? If gapless, windowless sanctions have yet more holes that need plugging, why not do it all now?
If I might hazard a guess, the obstacle is not solely that veto-wielding permanent Security Council members China and Russia have no serious interest in trying to throttle North Korea's Kim regime. Even when they vote for those ever tougher UN sanctions, they have been, to put it generously, highly casual about enforcing them. On the evidence, China — despite its public expressions of disapproval and disappointment over each North Korean nuclear test — has nonetheless, for decades now, allowed North Korea to proceed. It is past time to ask quite seriously whether Beijing (never mind its public posturing) reached a quiet decision quite some years ago that China can live comfortably enough with a nuclear-armed North Korea that dedicates itself to bedeviling such leading democracies as South Korea, America and Japan.
Nor is the problem solely that sanctions, to whatever degree they are attempted, have virtually no chance of forcing North Korea into a good faith deal to give up its long-established, deeply entrenched nuclear program. In previous talks and deals (1994, 2005, 2007, as well as President Obama's attempted 2012 so-called Leap Day missile-freeze deal), Pyongyang racked up an unbroken record of lying, cheating, pocketing the gains and carrying on with its threats and WMD projects.
In the prime case in which sanctions did seem to get serious traction — when U.S. sanctions persuaded Macau in 2005 to freeze North Korea-linked accounts in Banco Delta Asia — North Korea went ahead in 2006 with its first nuclear test, then came to the bargaining table for a deal in 2007, and took to the cleaners the eager diplomats of President Bush's "soft power" second term. The antics of that era included State Department special envoy Chris Hill demanding the help of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve to transfer back to North Korea, via the banking system (at North Korea's behest) some $25 million in tainted funds that had been frozen at Banco Delta Asia in Macau; a U.S. handout of millions to pay Pyongyang for the Potemkin spectacle in 2008 of blowing up a dispensible cooling tower at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex; and the removal of North Korea from the U.S. government's blacklist of terror-sponsoring states (a concession which to this day the State Department has yet to remedy). The 2007 deal fell apart as Bush was leaving office, and in May, 2009 North Korea welcomed Obama's presidency by conducting its second nuclear test.
Today, with North Korea working at speed toward an ability to target the United States, the U.S. fallback is to try to pressure China, under threat of sanctions that would hurt China itself, to defang North Korea. That approach allows for plenty of employment in Washington, in the debates, design and attempts to apply such sanctions. But somewhere out there lies the question of how to sustain any such approach, on the ground (and the seas) in Asia, and where it might actually lead. Sanctions tend to erode over time, as their targets adapt. If North Korea is richly capable of the duplicities that have repeatedly foiled nuclear negotiators, China has vastly more reach and resources available for its own gambits. Even if the ever-tougher-sanctions approach leads to a deal, who or what then guarantees (the deep flaws of Obama's Iran nuclear deal come to mind) that once the strictures are loosened, North Korea, or China, would abide by that deal? (Forget the UN, which has to date failed abysmally to stop North Korea's nuclear program, and which relies on individual member states to police their own enforcement of sanctions.)
The further fallback is the threat of U.S.-led military force, which is what the Trump administration is now turning to in a number of ways, including the deployment of a third aircraft carrier group as part of the "armada" Trump is sending to the Western Pacific. Part of the idea here is also to put China on notice that the U.S. is serious.
The problem here is that to be effective, military threats need to be credible. After eight years of Obama's "patience," following North Korea's successes with its nuclear extortion racket going back to the early 1990s, the consistent signal from three U.S. presidents — Obama, Bush and Clinton — has been that the U.S. for all its vast firepower would rather be snookered at the bargaining table, or simply do nothing, than actually risk a military strike that could turn into a hot war with North Korea.
It doesn't help that on May 19 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters that any military solution to North Korea would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale," so "our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation." Nor does it help that on May 23, 64 Democratic lawmakers sent a public letter to Trump, asking for details of his plans for a negotiated solution of "the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula," and warning Trump against including in any such plans an "ill-advised military component." If — after the agonies of the 1950-1953 Korean War, and in view of North Korea's current military threat to Seoul and increasingly dangerous arsenal — the U.S. is not prepared to go to war again to stop North Korea, then the prudent course would be at least to keep quiet about it. Otherwise, the result is to neuter any U.S. threat of force, further emboldening North Korea.
Which brings us to the core problem, the grand dilemma looming behind all the machinations described above. There is really only one way out of this situation, only one real solution, and that is an end to the Kim regime in North Korea. On humanitarian grounds alone, the fall or overthrow of the Kim regime would be fully justified, and is long, long overdue. In view of North Korea's rising threats to others, its growing arsenal, its record of peddling munitions to the likes of Syria and Iran, and its unbroken record of consistently abusing any and all deals, there is no other answer. The Kim regime has to go.
But getting rid of the Kim regime is in itself risky. However it might happen, whether Kim's regime might be destroyed by military force, throttled by sanctions, overthrown from within, or somehow shoved from power through some combination of these factors, no one knows exactly what might follow, or how things might then play out.
And so, with variations that have repeatedly failed to end the threat, one U.S. administration after another has defaulted to a "status quo" in which the effort is not to get rid of the Kim regime, but to manage it — as if it were some sort of highly unpleasant chronic medical condition.
Thus did Tillerson tell the UN Security Council meeting last month, at its special meeting on North Korea, that "Our goal is not regime change, nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia Pacific region."
Newsflash: The Asia Pacific region is already being destabilized, by nuclear-arming North Korea itself, as well as China — with its own military buildup, its island-building territorial grabs offshore, and its threats to freedom of navigation. What we are witnessing is not a durable status quo, but a trajectory, in which a U.S. impulse for peace in our time keeps steering us toward cataclysm ahead. What Obama achieved with his "strategic patience" was to postpone the day of reckoning long enough to hand off a threat grown vastly worse to his successor.
How this gets resolved in any way favorable, or even remotely safe, for America and its democratic allies is a hideous conundrum. But the situation right now is very far from safe. The threats from North Korea keep rising — not only its nuclear program, but such matters as its cyber warfare projects, plus the example Pyongyang continues to set of how a malign and predatory tyranny can survive by arming itself with the world's most destructive weapons and threatening liberally to use them. We should have no doubt that Iran, and others, are taking notes.
What's certain is this: None of this will be resolved by America writing off regime change as the real goal in Pyongyang while waiting to respond with another stack of UN sanctions, however neatly pre-negotiated, to North Korea's next nuclear test.
Claudia Rosett is Foreign Policy Fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, and author of the Encounter Books Broadside, What To Do About the UN.