Give ‘Maximum Pressure’ on North Korea a Chance

North Korea, media, fawning, oppressed maximum pressureWhere does the United States’ North Korea policy stand after Vice President Pence’s visit to the Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony in South Korea?  Essentially the policy remains where it stood before.  This policy is “maximum pressure with room for conditional engagement.” The policy was decided early in the Trump administration and there has been little deviation, despite writings from outside commentators about the possibilities of war.

Let’s start from the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017.  The President and his team inherited a policy mess.  For over two decades, the United States made idle threats that “we would never accept a nuclear North Korea,” and made various private promises of the same kind to Japan and South Korea. Towards this end, the United States implemented scattershot sanctions and other punishments, then proceeded to overturn many of them during periods in which Pyongyang and Washington were engaged in negotiations. Indeed, the United States transferred substantial money and aid to the regime and engaged in “strategic patience” – a policy of negligence. As if to punctuate this strategic mess, the United States also implemented its fastest and deepest round of defense cuts since the end of the Korean War from 2010-2015.

Meanwhile, over that same period, the Kim regime tested nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles on several occasions, transferred a nuclear reactor to Syria, and apparently accelerated its strategic cooperation with Iran. It also killed South Koreans in cold blood.  None of these provocations have been met with a response from the United States.   As past administrations well know, the Kim regime constantly threatens to proliferate another nuclear weapon unless the United States recognizes it as a nuclear state and withdraws its troops from the peninsula.   By the time President Trump took office, Kim’s clique had learned that it could proliferate, provoke, and develop its arsenal with impunity and count on China and others to bail it out financially when necessary.

Thus, to say that Trump inherited a dangerous mess is an understatement.   Even though the most automatic tool in U.S. statecraft – sanctions – was often deployed, our approach towards coercive diplomacy with North Korea has certainly not been “maximalist.” According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Scholar Anthony Ruggiero, North Korea is less sanctioned than Syria or Iran.

Given this history, there is a growing danger that North Korea will be able to deliver nuclear weapons to the United States on an intercontinental ballistic missile. With Kim’s strategic goal of reunifying the peninsula and the decline of U.S. military power, the Trump administration chose the only realistic course to minimize the threat from North Korea: maximum pressure with an opening for engagement.

The first component of such a policy is pressuring the Kim regime’s financial sources. As President George W. Bush recognized during his first term, North Korea is susceptible to economic pressure.   During the 26 year-long crisis, the Kim regime received nearly $1 billion dollars from the United States and more than $4 billion dollars from South Korea.  From its Chinese patron, North Korea has been the beneficiary of at least $12 billion in trade (not including aid). Furthermore, the Kim regime has set up an extraordinary criminal enterprise that uses its embassies and diplomats to help sell weapons and military assistance to a host of terrorist groups and rogue regimes, as well as engage in currency counterfeiting, drug trade, and direct theft through cybercrime. This makes North Korea vulnerable to an international effort to shut down its legal and illegal trades. Despite its ideological pronouncements, North Korea is far from “self-reliant.”

Maximum pressure is designed to shut down all sources of revenue to the Kim regime.  This will require “secondary sanctions” on China, which have hardly been enacted as of yet.   The idea behind this policy is not that China will suddenly see the error of its ways and “help” the United States constrain North Korea. Rather, through a campaign of financial pressure against China, Beijing may see that the status quo is untenable.  These economic tools are then supplemented by more frequent US-Japan-Korean military exercises, increased sale of U.S. offensive weapons to its Northeast Asian allies, and the building of a layered missile defense system for a comprehensive maximum pressure campaign.

This brings us to the matter that has become the latest obsession of the media and many pundits: war with North Korea.  The United States has the difficult job of generating credible military options to remove North Korean threats to the U.S. homeland and its Asian allies, whilst also changing China’s risk calculations and reassuring a very progressive South Korean government.  The fact is that while implementing maximum pressure is the main goal of the Trump administration, the administration must also create and debate military options for a number of contingencies that all parties are hoping to avoid.  They are doing so because, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said at the 2017 Aspen Security Forum, “it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability. What’s unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado. That’s unimaginable to me. So my job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn’t happen.”   Yet formulating military options and engaging in military pressure is a far cry from preparing for a “preventative nuclear attack.”

The Pence Trip

Vice President Pence had the unenviable task of pushing back against a concerted campaign by the Kim regime to split the alliance between the United States and South Korea.  Kim Jong Un is pursuing such a campaign just as he has begun to feel the bite of real sanctions.  Unfortunately, Kim is dealing with a South Korean government that is open to engagement with the North and ideologically committed to the myth of unification through peaceful dialogue with Kim.   To keep the South Koreans on board with the allied approach of maximum pressure and conditional engagement, Pence had to suggest entering into dialogue with the DPRK.    But careful scrutiny of his words reveal that engagement will be highly circumscribed.  For example, engagement does not mean that the United States will lessen its maximum pressure campaign; the maximum pressure approach has just begun.  The Trump administration has carefully studied and learned from the results of past engagements, during which the Kim regime gained one-sided concessions from the United States and its allies, bought time, decreased international pressure against its course of action, and secured financial bailouts just as it began to suffer from the weight of sanctions.  The costs of engaging with North Korea at this time thus deserves much more consideration and debate amongst experts and commentators.

A Policy of Maximum Pressure Needs More Time


In the past year, the United States and the United Nations greatly strengthened the international sanctions regime against North Korea. For example, at the end of 2017 the United Nations Security Council expanded the scope of sanctions against North Korea to cripple North Korea’s military-industrial complex. The new sanctions ban all industrial imports, cut energy exports, and require the seizure, inspection, and suspension of North Korean vessels that violate these restrictions. Washington also expanded the scope of U.S. sanctions against North Korea to allow U.S. officials to impose sanctions against any individual or entity engaging in trade with North Korea, including, of course, Chinese and Russian businesses and citizens. Under these regulations, individuals and entities could be severely penalized by fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, blocked from conducting commerce in or with the United States, or lose access to the worldwide clearing system of dollar-based financial settlements. These sanctions, largely implemented towards the end of 2017, have just begun to take effect.

The Trump administration also designated North Korea a state-sponsor of terrorism, which provides the United States the ballast to pressure foreign governments to shut down North Korean embassies, trade missions, and other related centers of illicit activity to rollback North Korea’s illicit criminal enterprise system.  The United States had an effort like this during the early Bush years, called the Illicit Activities Initiatives, which at the time led to some real success.  The United States is now in a good position to begin pressuring the international community to do the same once again and roll back North Korean criminal and terror-sponsoring activities.  This will take time and a sustained diplomatic effort.

Military Coercion

In addition to these financial tactics, the United States has also increased its military response and shows of force in the region as part of its maximum pressure policy. In 2017 alone, the United States has engaged in over six joint military exercises with its Asian allies designed to directly counter specific North Korean capabilities, including drills on precision strikes against potential North Korean targets, enemy infiltration of South Korea, and interceptions of shipments of nuclear material to/from North Korea. The United States has also shown an increased willingness to use flyovers in response to specific North Korean provocations such as the intercontinental ballistic missile test in July and Otto Warmbier’s death in June. Furthermore, the presence of three U.S. Nimitz-class carriers in the U.S. 7th Fleet’s area of operations between October and November 2017 — while President Trump visited South Korea — was a demonstration of the kind of coercive diplomacy that the United States will practice. Lastly, the United States has proved willing to support the more offensively-minded posture of its allies. In June 2017, the United States deployed 10 long-range air-to-ground missiles in South Korea, soon after it agreed to scrap warhead limitations on South Korea’s own ballistic missiles. In October 2017, the United States further agreed to sell over 50 advanced cruise missiles to Japan. Such actions have increased U.S. military responses on the peninsula and open the door to further pressure tactics.

What We Can Still Do to Enact Maximum Pressure

While these are all crucial mechanisms of the maximum pressure campaign, the United States has other tools available to pressure North Korea. This includes forcefully cracking down against North Korean laborers abroad, confronting third-party states that are directly engaging with the Kim regime (namely China and Russia), and improving our intelligence.

First, Washington should take the lead in publicly lobbying foreign governments to crack down on North Korean workers in their own countries. The latest round of United Nations Security Council sanctions in September 2017 required countries to revoke North Korean workers’ visas within twenty-four months. The United States can and should punish those that don’t. Both Chinese and Russian businesses employ North Korean laborers in large numbers, so public U.S. pressure on Russia and China should be a priority. While the U.S. Treasury Department has investigated and sanctioned certain Chinese and Russian individuals and businesses that were transporting North Korean laborers, the United States has yet to implement sanctions against specific Chinese and Russian companies that employ these workers.

Second, the Trump administration should also engage in larger pressure campaigns against Chinese and Russian businesses that are indirectly helping the Kim regime. The United States has not yet targeted big Chinese oil and mineral companies that are granted the same Chinese Communist Party (CCP) largesse as their smaller, sectorial counterparts, even though they may not benefit from direct business with North Korea.  As such, U.S. secondary sanctions should also target big Chinese companies with close CCP ties. And of course, the United States has not used its most powerful tool: the dollar as reserve currency.  The United States has the power to stop entities doing business with North Korea from engaging in dollar-denominated financial transactions.

Lastly, as American Enterprise Institute Scholar Nick Eberstadt identified, the intelligence community can do a better job of tracking other sources of North Korean revenue.  In particular, there seems to have been increased cooperation between Iran and North Korea since Obama’s signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There are surely many more ties between Kim and the world’s greatest rogue states, terrorists, and criminals that our intelligence community can pinpoint and that maximum pressure can target.

With better intelligence, international coordination, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy, and the global rollback of North Korean proliferation and other criminal activity, Eberstadt estimates the United States can send the North Korean economy into shock.

Unintended Consequences/ Potential Contingency Scenarios

However, like any U.S. foreign policy, there remains the potential for unintended consequences to arise. One involves the North Korean elites that keep the Kim regime alive and the North Korean nuclear arsenal in good stead. With these enhanced maximum pressure techniques, these elites may lose their status and wealth, and Kim could well be the target of their ire. In this case, “regime change” or internally-led upheaval may not be entirely out of the question.  While such a scenario is unlikely, the United States and South Korea must be prepared for either a full-on collapse of North Korea or a replacement regime that is serious about ridding itself of weapons of mass destruction and alleviating the dire humanitarian situation.  Additionally, if China feels the bite of sanctions itself and wants to forestall a full-blown, offensively-minded trilateral alliance, China might take matters into their own hands. Therefore, the United States and Republic of Korea must accelerate planning for these contingencies as it increases its maximum pressure techniques.

This maximum pressure campaign has much to commend if it’s carried out to its logical conclusion. But such a policy may invoke serious strategic tradeoffs, and the potential for damaging countermoves by both North Korea and China. The most dangerous unintended consequence right now, however, is the success the Kim regime has had in inducing South Korea into talks. The maximum pressure campaign has just begun to take effect, and it would be disastrous if it was stalled by more promises of engagement.

From - AEI.org - by Dan Blumenthal

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