North Korea’s March to Nuclear Relevance


While all eyes remain fixed on March 24 to see if the United States can prevent Iran from getting the bomb, a new report from the Johns Hopkins U.S.-Korea Institute warns that North Korea could possibly have 100 of them by 2020. Of course, that’s the upper-limit estimate, with the report noting that a 50-bomb arsenal is more likely. Still, the functional difference between 50 and 100 bombs is like that between $50 million and $100 million – with either, you’ve got power and you’re treated seriously. Clearly, North Korea is on the verge of nuclear breakout.

The consequences of a full-blown nuclear North Korea would be every bit as destabilizing to regional and world order as a nuclear Iran. It would call into question the U.S. rebalance to East Asia and commitment to allies in Seoul and Tokyo, potentially unleash a volatile regional nuclear arms race, and enable the Kim regime to continue its crimes against humanity behind a fortified nuclear shield. For all that Beijing worries about the ensuing chaos of a regime collapse in Pyongyang, a fully nuclear North Korea would be a veritable bull in a China shop.

To avoid such an outcome, U.S. policy towards North Korea must change. In a recent speech at the Carnegie Foundation, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stressed that North Korea will never get the security, prosperity, or respect it wants without negotiating an end to its nuclear program. This long-held U.S. position ignores two basic facts. First, the Kim regime wants security, prosperity, and respect for itself alone – its policy choices of nukes over nutrition and gulags over growth demonstrate its contempt for the rest of the population. Second, it has judged that pursuing a nuclear program is the surest route to these goals.

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In terms of security, Pyongyang has drawn stark lessons from Libya and Ukraine, both of which scrapped their nuclear programs for the warm embrace of the international community. Kim Jong-un’s father presumably watched them subsequently get left out in the cold. The son has hugged his nuclear security blanket closer ever since. As for respect and prosperity, the regime’s nuclear program has enabled it to grab headlines and extract billions of dollars in concessions from the international community. Without nukes, North Korea would deprive itself of its own relevance.

Getting North Korea to return to the negotiating table in good faith will require more than strategic patience. The U.S. must lead a renewed international effort to target Pyongyang’s shadowy finances, which forms the lifeblood of the regime. Kim depends on these cash flows to pay off his cronies and the men with guns who sustain the regime. Blocking Pyongyang’s illicit streams of revenue will be a tall order, but it begins by correcting the widespread and self-defeating fallacy that North Korea is the most-sanctioned place on earth.

In fact, North Korea is importing luxury goods at an unprecedented clip. Under Kim Jong-un, the regime has more than doubled spending on luxury goods, from an average of $300 million under Kim Jong Il to an estimated $644 million in 2013.

As Kim’s shopping spree suggests, the international community must do a better job of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions that ban the sale of luxury items to North Korea. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry report points out that European and other countries have continued to sell luxury goods to the Kim regime. This explains how Canadian snowmobiles, Swedish snow blowers, and German and Italian snow plows turned up last year at North Korea’s Masik luxury ski resort. Kim has also been importing liquor, watches, designer handbags, cosmetics, and jewelry without impediment. The U.S., the UN, and leading NGOs should name and shame countries and companies that abet the Kim regime in flagrant violation of multiple UNSCRs.

In addition to enforcing current sanctions, tougher ones should be applied. Kurt Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the difference between the sanctions regimes against Myanmar and North Korea was like “night and day.” Unlike Myanmar, Iran, Ukraine, or Nauru, the U.S. Treasury Department has yet to designate North Korea, the world’s leader in counterfeiting U.S. currency, as a “primary money laundering concern.” That should change. Doing so would deter other banks from doing business with North Korea, and potentially freeze it out from the U.S. financial system.

Third-party sanctions should also be considered. Kim is deploying upwards of 100,000 North Korean workers abroad to earn cash for the regime. Without a say in the matter, these workers contribute $150-230 million a year to Pyongyang’s coffers. History suggests the bulk of this revenue is used for purchasing weapons systems and luxury goods instead of food for the people. Treasury should penalize firms that hire North Korean slave labor. Subsidizing Pyongyang’s armament and human rights violations should have consequences.

There are some signs that the U.S. may be adopting a firmer stance towards Pyongyang. In response to the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, President Obama signed Executive Order 13,687 to authorize sanctions against the North Korean government and Communist Party. Congress should build on this momentum and pass the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015, the most far-reaching and comprehensive sanctions package to date. The bill, if enacted, would require the U.S. government to severely penalize any North Korean or outside entity that facilitates Pyongyang’s extensive offenses, such as proliferation, arms-trafficking, money-laundering, human rights violations, censorship, luxury goods import, and cyberattacks.

While the U.S. and its partners work to tighten sanctions and stop the flow of luxury goods into North Korea, they should continue to pump information into it. Early returns tell us that access to outside information is having a positive impact on North Koreans’ perceptions about their country and the outside world.

We know the Kim regime depends on cash flows and information control to maintain its grip on power. Together, the above measures could help disrupt the cohesion of the regime and force it to make some difficult choices about how it spends its money and treats its people. The alternative is to allow Pyongyang to continue its unimpeded march to nuclear relevance.

Sanctions against North Korea have not been exhausted. “Strategic patience,” an amalgam of denial, unfounded hopes of Pyongyang’s collapse or reform, and cringing aversion to take risks, clearly has.

Zach Przystup received a master’s degree in international relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he studied U.S. Foreign Policy and Pacific Asia. He is now the Assistant Director for Global Executive and Diplomatic Education at The Fletcher School. 

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