The debate never stops. Pro-sanction people are saying the latest round of U.S. sanctions against the North may indeed bring enough pressure on Kim Jong-un to agree to talks about giving up his nukes and missiles. The anti-sanctionists say sanctions never work. To prove it, they need only point to North Korea’s test on Tuesday of another intercontinental missile — this one soaring 2,800 miles above the earth’s surface before splashing down in the Sea of Japan 600 miles from its launch site. Now, it’s feared, Kim will want to test still more missiles and nukes just to prove what a great and independent leader he is.
Who will know for sure, however, whether he would or would not have ordered the North’s latest ICBM test with or without the sanctions?
It’s all a guessing game in which President Trump’s decision to restore North Korea to its rightful place on the State Department’s list of “sponsors of terror” adds colorful quotes to the argument. If nothing else, by bestowing this label on North Korea, Trump scores rhetorical or propaganda points. Proponents of a strong U.S. policy think he has done what’s needed to bring Kim to his senses and bow to the demands of just about every leader on earth to stop the nonsense.
After briefly making headlines in the United States, however, these gestures do not appear to have advanced the story a great deal. Certainly a few more Chinese companies may be constrained from doing business with North Korea, and certainly North Korean leaders do not like the “terror” label now anymore than they did in 2008 when George W. Bush, then the U.S. president, ordered removal of the North from the list.
Bush at the time was persuaded by Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, that removal of the North from the list would provide the North with enough face and respect to abide by agreements hammered out by Christopher Hill in six-party talks to give up its nuclear program on a carefully devised timetable. Hill also got the U.S. Treasury Department to remove constraints that had forced Banco Delta Asia in Macao to freeze a few tens of millions of dollars in North Korean accounts.
Anyone could have seen that Hill, looking for a place in history as the diplomat who had gotten the North to give up its nuclear ambitions, was more or less out of his mind. What made him imagine that Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, would ever abide by such a deal? Had he not totally ignored the 1991 North-South agreement on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and then violated the 1994 Geneva framework agreement by engaging in a program for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium after making a great show of shutting down its plutonium reactor?
Hill these days is saying North Korean negotiators lied to him, broke their promises and were otherwise quite deceptive. Why of course, Hill has been saying, he always thought the North would go right back on the terror list as soon as it became clear the North Koreans were breaking their promises. In the meantime, Banco Delta Asia had gone on serving as a conduit for distributing counterfeit North Korean one-hundred-dollar bills while North Korea’s Bureau 39 deposited profits from sales of weapons, narcotics, even cigarettes with phony foreign labels on them.
Having said that North Korea should have remained in its place of honor on the “terror” list along with Syria, Iran and Sudan, where does Trump go from here? Is Trump, having described his recent calls on Asian leaders as “historic,” ready to move beyond histrionics? What if Kim Jong-un really does order another test of a long-range missile? Then what?
It’s often said that Trump is really tough, that he’s capable of some wild act, a “pre-emptive strike” that might precipitate counter-attacks on South Korea’s populated, industrial regions. Perhaps the North might even fire a few missiles at the South.
It’s the fear of such a reaction from the North that inhibits South Korean President Moon Jae-in from going along with U.S. hints of a “military option” if diplomacy fails. Many Americans, like Moon, also fear the North might unleash a devastating response. Nobody wants to take the chance.
It probably would be extremely risky to predict the next act in the great Korean drama. We have so often been surprised in the past. Let us hope intensified pressure does have a certain effect — and we will never have to know what would have happened if either Trump or Kim had made good on their worst threats.