The Time is Now for U.S. and China to Respond to North Korea



Caption: North Korea and China have historically shared a close friendship; this relationship will be the biggest determinant of the North Korean regime’s trajectory | Courtesy of Roman Harak, Wikimedia Commons.

It seems like a tall task nowadays to pick out an action from the Trump administration to deem commendable. But regarding his decision to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea, I believe that it was a positive step, and if anything, he did not go far enough.

On September 21, President Trump moved to widen the United States’ sanctions on North Korea, shortly after the United Nations Security Council had approved a weakened version of what he demanded. On December 22, the Security Council further tightened the existing-UN sanctions by approving measures that would “significantly choke off fuel supplies and order North Koreans working overseas to return home.” These recent rounds of sanctions combine to give unprecedented latitude to the U.S. Treasury and State Departments to “target individuals, banks and other companies that finance or facilitate trade with North Korea.” Specifically, it “bars international banks from the American market if they facilitate transactions with North Korea,” punishes those “doing business with major North Korean industries including textiles, fishing, information technology and manufacturing,” bars “vessels or aircraft that have visited or interacted with North Koreans within the prior six months from entry into U.S. ports, and [blocks] North Korea assets that flow through the U.S. financial network.” To date, the sanctions have specifically targeted eight North Korean banks and 26 people linked to North Korea’s financial network. Many experts say that its measures constitute “the most sweeping set of punitive economic measures enacted by the United States in many years.”

The common critique of sanctions against North Korea, however, is that they are not enforced scrupulously, and countries like China and Russia consistently either refuse to cooperate or dilute the severity of these measures. These criticisms have proven to be true time and time again, and that is why the United States must be unrelenting in the implementation of the sanctions to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Shockingly, September 2016 was the first time that the United States indicted a Chinese firm for violating UN and U.S. sanctions. Yet even then, the Obama administration “stopped short of going after the Chinese banks that had facilitated the scheme, even though both UN sanctions resolutions and U.S. Treasury Department regulations obligated the banks to investigate and report the company’s suspicious activities.”

To some degree, the United States’ sanctions affect the international community more broadly. But the fact of the matter is that the sanctions really need to change the behavior of China, and to a lesser degree, Russia. China almost single-handedly keeps the North Korean economy afloat, and sanctions will continue to have a muted impact if Chinese banks turn a blind eye, and they will not be moved to comply unless the United States follows through on penalizing violators.

On a very basic level, the United States needs to work to change China’s incentive calculus and cost-benefit analysis concerning North Korea. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated, “[f]oreign financial institutions are now on notice. They can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both.” The United States needs to stand fast to this commitment, even though it might come at a cost. China might respond to this hardline stance with import tariffs or aggressive military actions in the Pacific, but the United States must be prepared to weather the short-term consequences for the long-term payoff. As much as China has become a global power, the United States is still the dominant player, whether that be economically or militarily. Especially with the recent development that North Korea successfully tested an ICBM, the time to walk on eggshells around China regarding North Korea has come to an end. North Korea is well on its way to becoming a legitimate nuclear power, and China has enabled the rogue regime to get to this point. China must be forced to choose between maintaining economic cooperation with the United States and propping up the North Korean regime through illicit economic activities.

Assuming that states act based on rational self-interest, I would venture to guess that China would determine that continuing to keep the United States as its biggest trade partner is of greater importance than skirting sanctions. Undoubtedly, China also considers North Korea from a national security perspective and sees the existence of the North Korean regime as a geopolitical benefit. And while this is a separate discussion, I believe that China’s reservations are not difficult to overcome with the right amount of diplomacy, concessions, carrots, and sticks.

After decades of failed diplomacy, it is now clear that North Korea has no intention of shutting down its nuclear program. And with the surprising strides that it has made in recent years, North Korea should now be viewed as an urgent national security issue for the United States as well. As such, forceful steps are necessary to convince North Korea that “it must disarm and reform or perish.” The most realistic and historically successful method (see Iran, Myanmar) is to impose draconian financial sanctions that bring the regime to its knees. Whatever costs may come with that decision are far outweighed by the potential costs of a nuclearized North Korea. There is simply too much at stake.

Dyllan Lee is a second-year J.D. student at Columbia Law School and a Staff Member of the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. He holds a B.A. and B.S. from University of California, Berkeley, where he studied Political Science and Business Administration.