Time to end the North Korea sanctions merry-go-round

The vote came as the North Korean regime threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on the United States. China and Russia joined the United States in a unanimous vote to impose sanctions that the U.S. Ambassador to the UN said would “bite hard” for North Korean officials.

Developments last weekend in New York?  No, it was March 2013 when the Obama administration secured unanimous support at the UN Security Council for yet another round of multilateral sanctions on North Korea in response to that country’s third nuclear test.

The Trump administration has now done the same, with the White House hailing a new round of multilateral sanctions, projecting that it will have a “very big financial impact” of more than $1 billion.

Yet the Groundhog Day nature of U.S. response to North Korea for the last decade, during Republican and Democratic administrations alike – provocation, followed by multilateral sanctions that usually are not fully implemented, leading to another provocation, to another round of sanctions – begs the question: why will this time be any different?

American allies such as Singapore and Egypt need to choose: do business with the United States or business with North Korea.

We learned a few tough lessons in the U.S. government when we worked to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

First, multilateral sanctions are often worthless unless they are backed by robust unilateral U.S. sanctions. Indeed, following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010) against Iran, the U.S. Congress passed stringent sanctions that the Obama administration was required to impose on Iran and its facilitators. These sanctions eventually helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. Unless the United States does the same with North Korea, our latest efforts are doomed to fail.

The efficacy of international sanctions against North Korea always depends on Chinese cooperation. The last 11 years of UN sanctions resolutions on North Korea suggest that China will cooperate when the spotlight is bright, but will return to old ways when the attention fades.

Prior to last weekend, the Trump administration appeared poised to finally crack down on China’s enablement of North Korea’s bad behavior. On July 29, President Trump appeared to have lost patience with Beijing, tweeting that China was doing “NOTHING” on North Korea, just talking. Sanctions against Chinese financial institutions and Chinese companies that facilitate Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion were reportedly in the works. Simultaneously, the administration was supposedly poised to target Chinese manipulative trade practices, fulfilling campaign promises to be tough on China. But that was postponed last week, likely due to the vote at the United Nations.

The administration now finds itself in the same position as its Democratic and Republican predecessors. Our international partners will tell us to pause after this latest round of sanctions, and to wait for sanctions to bite. The problem is, with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs rapidly progressing – including reports over the last two weeks of revised intelligence community assessments – we don’t have time to wait.

The Trump administration should test Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement that China is “willing to pay a price for implementing the resolution.” The United States should make clear that Beijing will also pay a price for not implementing the resolution.

China’s leadership feared Israeli military action against Iran and U.S. sanctions against Chinese banks, which led to greater cooperation from Beijing. Senior officials from the State and Treasury Departments should fly to Beijing immediately with a list of actions that China must accomplish. Chinese leadership will balk, but they had 10 years to fix this problem.

Some in Washington are beginning to advocate for military strikes. The president himself threatened “fire and fury.” But beyond a defensive strike to shoot down a missile launched toward the U.S. or our allies, such threats are dangerous and unnecessary at this point. The United States still has many tools short of war that successive administrations have not tried.

First, more Chinese entities need to be sanctioned. Recent disclosures show that from 2009 to 2017, North Korea used Chinese banks to process at least $2.2 billion in transactions through the U.S. financial system and likely represents the tip of the iceberg. Chinese banks must now halt all transactions with the DPRK.

China must also restrict trade with Pyongyang. For example, North Korea’s ICBMs are carried on Chinese-made trucks; the Kim regime claimed the trucks were for the forestry ministry, and the UN has prohibited since 2006 the export of items for the Kim regime’s missile program.

China has notoriously flouted sanctions in the past and the communist party’s recent complaints about U.S. “moral arrogance” after the UNSCR vote doesn’t portend well for this round, either. U.S. secondary sanctions are what truly worry Beijing. The Trump administration needs to move forward now with more designations.

Second, the United States must take action to cut off the regime’s other financial lifelines.  Secretary Tillerson has stressed the need for all nations to contribute to a solution. Yet the UNSCR only capped North Korean workers, seemingly accepting the status quo where Pyongyang sends as many as 120,000 of its citizens overseas to work in slave labor conditions. The Kim regime receives at least $500 million a year from the practice and the new UN resolution said Pyongyang uses the revenue for its nuclear weapons and missile programs. This is unacceptable. We should cut off this economic lifeline to the regime wherever it exists, and the new sanctions law mandates sanctions against those who employ these laborers.

To this end, the administration must tell our allies that they must end their financial relationships with North Korea immediately. This will involve some difficult conversations, including with U.S. partners who continue to accept U.S. largesse but do business with North Korea on the side. For example, Singapore, a key U.S. ally, serves as a conduit for luxury goods to North Korea that helps North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remain in power. Even countries like Egypt have been urged by the Trump administration to cut off their dealings with the Kim regime as Cairo was a customer for North Korean missiles. America’s allies need to choose: do business with the United States or business with North Korea. You can’t do both. Congress can help convey this message, as well and if necessary, withhold U.S. assistance.

Third, we need to shut down North Korean proliferation networks once and for all. For years, the U.S. government has attempted to monitor North Korean shipping networks to prevent proliferation of WMD materials or dual use items.  North Korea has successfully evaded these restrictions in part because of the unwillingness of many countries to shut down transshipment points and roll up networks of facilitators. The United States should be boarding North Korean vessels, forcing Beijing to stop flights, and putting pressure on other transit countries to roll up proliferation facilitators. Ignoring the proliferation threat means that the threat could extend well beyond North Korea’s ICBM program into the Middle East or other regions.

Finally, the Trump administration has said little about North Korea’s abysmal human rights record. This is a key pressure point. The administration should continue efforts at the United Nations to act on the recommendations of the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry. In particular, sanctions should also be used against North Korean officials who oversee the regime’s vast apparatus of prison camps – a modern day gulag.

President Trump came into office vowing to finally solve the North Korea challenge. He still can, but he needs to break out of the old Beijing-Pyongyang trap and begin to finally take action to tackle this problem. The clock is ticking.

Jamie Fly is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served in the Defense Department and National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him @jamiemfly.

Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was the non-proliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him @_ARuggiero.