Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on July 21 a series of measures to increase Washington’s ability to “prevent North Korea’s proliferation, to halt their illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs and to discourage further provocative actions.” She added, “We will implement new country-specific sanctions aimed at North Korea’s sale and procurement of arms and related material and the procurement of luxury goods and other illicit activities.” Although the U.S is already committed to implementing exactly these sanctions under UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, Ms. Clinton explained that they will now be more strictly imposed in response to steps North Korean entities have taken to adapt to the existing sanctions. In addition to bolstering current sanctions, Washington also looks set to freeze a number of bank accounts associated with suspect North Korean companies, although on limited scale. So, is this latest development merely a posturing, the seeds of a major change in North Korean behavior, or likely to start a second Korean war?
In answering this question it’s important to look first at the context in which the U.S announcement was made. March 26 saw the sinking of the Cheonan, on May 26 South Korea released its alleged evidence of North Korean culpability and ever since, U.S rhetoric has continued to condemn Pyongyang’s behavior while also warning of inevitable consequences. Unfortunately for Washington though, ‘consequences’ did not arise for North Korea when the Cheonan incident was finally raised at the United Nations Security Council in early July. While the UNSC statement condemned the sinking of the ROK navy corvette and expressed “deep concern” over South Korea’s investigative report, the carefully worded text excluded any actual reference to the DPRK. Consequently it came as no surprise that North Korea considered the UNSC statement a “diplomatic victory,” enabling it to elude any formal punishment at the Security Council. This was of course due to China’s reticence on the issue, which derives from the fact that Beijing was unwilling to call out its communist neighbor by name (just as the U.S is rarely willing to do so with Israel)….
In the immediate follow-up to the Cheonan incident, a number of North Korea watchers made it clear that the U.S and South Korea would need to act decisively to restore deterrence over Pyongyang. While the ROK had a number of measures planned, it initially realized very few beyond an anti-submarine drill in its West Sea. The U.S and South Korea have since announced a number of joint drills (regarded as highly controversial by both the DPRK and China), currently being scheduled to take place in both the East and West Seas. The “new” sanctions now being called for by Hillary Clinton seem to fit into a strategy that seeks, at least, to make it look like North Korea is being punished for the Cheonan incident – whether the UN likes it or not.
As some analysts have already commented, this new round of U.S sanctions will likely be regarded as “meaningless” by the DPRK. It is important to remember that the U.S has had virtually no economic contact with Pyongyang since prior to the Korean War, and having already placed numerous sanctions on the country, has very little leverage left – if any at all in unilateral terms. And as I have previously explained, for the type of ‘targeted’ sanctions currently being pursued to really bite, China would have to start implementing them with a lot more vigor. While Hillary Clinton visited Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to discuss exactly this issue last Thursday, the fact that the U.S chose not to consult with Beijing before announcing the new sanctions would not have bode well to secure Chinese cooperation on the issue, Foreign Policy.com suggests.
With the new sanctions unlikely to change things in Pyongyang, Ken Lieberthal is correct in suggesting that “The one approach that has caught North Korea’s attention in the past is financial sanctions that disrupt its access to the international banking system.” Indeed, George Bush’s freeze of DPRK assets held by the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) bank in 2005 caused significant consternation in North Korea. However, even this was not without unintended consequences. Indeed, the BDA freeze was very likely one of the motivating factors behind North Korea’s July 2006 missile tests and its October 2006 nuclear test – a series of tests that ultimately pushed the Bush administration to negotiate the frozen funds in return for a rejuvenation of the 6 Party Talks. It may have been this record, in combination with North Korea’s post-Cheonan warning on further sanctions, that led Washington, keen to avoid further belligerency, to opt for a symbolic ‘tightening’ of the current set up and a limited approach to bank freezes, as opposed to anything more substantive.
Even though the new sanctions proposed by the U.S appear to make little difference, North Korea has nevertheless reacted vehemently to them – labeling them a violation of the spirit of the recent UNSC statement. They likely also contributed to the recent flurry of nuclear threats in response to the U.S & ROK naval exercises. But although Pyongyang has warned that both the sanctions and naval drills ‘present a grave threat to the peace and security,’ history would suggest otherwise. But at the same time, history would also suggest that symbolic ‘tightening’ of existing sanctions will have no affect on North Korea’s future strategic thinking. Instead, it seems increasingly clear that the U.S and South Korea will have to simultaneously embark on a credible engagement strategy with North Korea if things are to ever change on the peninsula. Of course, they could always opt for regime change a la Iraq, since we all know how well that worked out.