The Debate

Hitting Pyongyang Where It Hurts

Recent Features

The Debate

Hitting Pyongyang Where It Hurts

To stop nuclear and rocket demonstrations, measures need to be more targeted.

Hitting Pyongyang Where It Hurts
Credit: Mansudae Monument via Attila JANDI /

Barely a month had passed since the January 6 testing of North Korea’s fourth nuclear device before Pyongyang felt it necessary once again to remind the world of its reputation as a rogue state. On February 7, ignoring the opprobrium of the international community, the DPRK launched a long-range rocket, in defiance of earlier resolutions of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Disregarding the Kim regime’s political semantics, which attempts to legitimize such rocketry as national scientific endeavors to place peaceful crop and weather monitoring satellites into orbit, the fact remains that each launch (which uses the same technology as intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs) allows North Korean scientists to gather data that could one day allow Pyongyang to manufacture missiles capable of reaching U.S. soil.

The general consensus amongst expert observers is that the DPRK has not yet mastered the technology to enable any missile-delivered warhead to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without burning up. Observers also doubt that the North is capable of miniaturizing nuclear warheads to such an extent that its purported satellite launch vehicles used in December 2012 and earlier this month would be capable of serving as ICBMs (warhead weight would need to be equal to or less than 100 kilograms), the fact remains that the Kim regime is stubbornly determined to continue developing nuclear warheads and missiles. As such, Pyongyang’s scientific establishment should not be underestimated.

However, given that North Korea’s leadership and strategic weapons sector seems unfazed by current global sanctions, and allowing the “salami slicing” progress of the North towards a fully operational nuclear arsenal is completely unacceptable, it is perhaps time for the U.S. and its regional partners to “take their gloves off,” and start hitting Pyongyang’s elites where it would really hurt, specifically their overseas slush funds and retirement accounts. Additionally, if Beijing’s quiet cooperation could be sought, it might even be possible to send Kim Jong-un a small but impactful signal that continued governance by the Kim “Dynasty” is contingent upon there being no further nuclear detonations or rocket launches.

Ineffectiveness of Current Sanctions 

Examine the sanctions imposed on North Korea via UNSC resolutions since 2006, which include resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094, passed in 2006, 2009 and (the latter two) in 2013 respectively, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are paper tigers. Apart from condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile testing while demanding that the DPRK’s leadership relinquish North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs, the aforementioned resolutions chiefly attempt to weaken the North’s conventional military capabilities, handicap the growth of its nuclear munitions program, and stymie ballistic missile development. Additionally, from resolution 2087 onwards, UN member states are encouraged to limit their financial and credit dealings with the DPRK and seek ways to lessen current financial relationships. Specifically, the most salient parts of the four resolutions are as follows:

–       That member states shall not export any heavy air, sea or land weapons systems and missiles to the DPRK, nor import such arms from North Korea.

–       That no material or technical assistance that can be used to promote Pyongyang’s nuclear, missile or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs be provided in any way, shape or form.

–       That member states shall freeze all financial and economic assets related in any way to the DPRK’s nuclear, missile or WMD programs.

–       That no logistical assistance whatsoever be provided to North Korean vessels attempting to transport materials related to its nuclear, missile or WMD programs.

–       That member states are called upon to refuse the establishment of DPRK financial institutions on their territories, nor to allow relationships between their banks and the DPRK, if such relationships can be shown to assist North Korean nuclear, missile or WMD activities.

–       Lastly, that states shall inspect any vessel or aircraft from or to the DPRK suspected to be carrying prohibited materials, or if such inspection is refused, to deny such vessels and aircraft access to their waters or airspace.

When these punitive measures are analyzed, it can be seen that they do relatively little to retard the Kim regime’s nuclear and missile ambitions. To begin with, neither Kim Jong-un nor his late father Kim Jong-il care or cared about international opinion. As non-proliferation norms clearly take a backseat to regime preservation, any amount of admonishment by the UNSC will be ignored.

Second, the resolutions merely seek to persuade member states to take action against the DPRK as a moral duty. This is evident in the repeated use of the words “shall” and “called upon.” None of the resolutions compel member states to take action or authorize the use of force against North Korean attempts to violate the resolutions’ sanctions.

Third, since sanctions implementation is not compulsory, their enforcement and administration is weak and nowhere near watertight. As evident from the North’s improvement in rocketry and nuclear capabilities, it can be deduced that material and technical inputs for these two programs are still being smuggled in.

Lastly, despite efforts at economic deprivation or eliminating financial sources linked to North Korean nuclear arms or missile research, the DPRK still receives substantial material and investment support from China. This allows Pyongyang to ignore the economic isolation prescribed as punishment by the UNSC and continue to devote scarce national resources to building its nuclear arsenal.

Getting Pyongyang’s Attention 

Consequently, if any new UNSC resolutions are going to be as limp wristed as the previous four, it might be advisable for the U.S. along with its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, to begin actively targeting any international bank accounts identified as being linked with Pyongyang’s elites, irrespective of their links to the DPRK’s nuclear or missile establishment. As in the case of the $25 million in North Korea funds deposited in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, which was frozen in late 2005 at the behest of the U.S. on money laundering allegations, so too could action be taken against accounts privately held by Pyongyang’s upper crust. In this manner, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul could actively ferret out the slush funds and retirement accounts of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle, and any bigwigs who walk the corridors of power.

Once identified, American, Japanese and South Korean representatives could then request that these covert nest eggs be frozen while being investigated for money laundering, failure to comply with this request resulting in the boycotting of the aforesaid bank by the U.S., Japanese and South Korean governments along with the companies of these wealthy nations. Considering that Pyongyang was and probably still is involved in the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, counterfeit cigarettes, narcotics production/smuggling and other shady businesses, it would be a fair bet that many of these accounts are part of the money laundering chain in the Kim regime’s criminal enterprises. With resultant legal action taken against the offending accounts, and the realization amongst the DPRK’s elite that their financial reserves overseas are under threat, Kim Jong-un would have a harder time maintaining his rule as the DPRK’s oligarchical system encounters difficulty securing the welfare of those at its apex.

Finally, if quiet diplomacy with Beijing can secure Chinese cooperation, Kim Jong-un might be reminded of the Kim dynasty’s vulnerability with a short interruption in the supply of Chinese oil. Given that North Korea obtains about 90 percent of its oil from the PRC by some accounts, a short three-day cessation in oil flow due to “technical difficulties,” followed by serious “fraternal socialist advice” from a Chinese ministerial representative, might convince Kim to realize that his goal of regime preservation is best achieved by nuclear and missile testing forbearance, since the resultant financial pressure and resource deprivation from persisting with the development of weapons of mass destruction might be a greater threat to his rule than any perceived invasion that his nuclear and rocket testing might deter.

Nah Liang Tuang (PhD) is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University