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How to Really Turn the Screws on North Korea
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How to Really Turn the Screws on North Korea

Unprecedented missile tests deserve a more serious diplomatic and economic response.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter. (Photo by KIM Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

North Korea has been on a tear lately. In 2022 the country has already conducted the most missile tests ever in a calendar year while providing material support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last week state media showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting the trial launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the country’s longest-range weapon.

The U.S. and its allies can best respond to such provocations by rebuilding a diplomatic coalition to stand against the Kim regime, and, most importantly, restoring a once robust sanctions campaign. The alternative is to sit passively as the North Korean dictator continues testing missiles and preparing for his country’s seventh nuclear test. 

The U.S. pressure campaign on North Korea consists of three parts: military, diplomatic, and economic.

The Biden administration deserves credit for reversing his predecessor’s misguided decision to halt and reduce U.S.-South Korea military exercises. A U.S. aircraft carrier also visited South Korea for the first time in four years as a show of force against Pyongyang’s actions. Biden recently hinted to Chinese President Xi Jinping that North Korea’s behavior would lead to a greater U.S. military presence in the region. Yet increasing diplomatic and financial pressure on Pyongyang in concrete ways will do more to get Xi’s attention.

In the past heavy sanctions have been imposed on North Korea, but they lose their effectiveness if not maintained properly. The once robust sanctions regime has atrophied since former President Donald Trump embraced summit-level diplomacy with Kim in 2018. Last year, the Biden administration did not issue any sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile activities. Kim may have taken that as a sign the administration was distracted.

While the Biden administration has issued sanctions this year against Pyongyang’s proliferation activities, the halfhearted effort has not proved effective. The most recent sanctions, announced earlier this month, demonstrate the problem. North Korea launched 23 missiles on Nov. 2—an unprecedented number on a single day—as well as an ICBM the next day. Days later the State Department claimed that the administration was disrupting North Korean logistical and financial networks supporting these programs. But a closer review of Treasury’s sanctions shows that the administration only imposed sanctions on two China-based individuals working for North Korea’s national airline. This did not disrupt anything. At best it was a pinprick against China’s longstanding role supporting Pyongyang.

An administration serious about North Korea sanctions would conduct a network analysis of all individuals, companies, and banks aiding Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion, with particular emphasis on revenue streams. The State Department estimated earlier this year that 20,000-100,000 North Korean overseas laborers are in China, and the administration highlighted that for Pyongyang this practice “generates an annual revenue to the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.” And Pyongyang continues to violate the U.N. prohibition on export of coal, most of which ends up in China. 

Dismantling these sanctions-evasion networks is difficult work but not impossible. A good place to start would be going after companies and individuals engaged in sanctions evasion with links to small or medium-sized Chinese banks as a message to the entire Chinese financial system. 

The diplomatic leg of the pressure campaign also is in trouble. In 2016 and 2017, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed six new sanctions resolutions in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. Biden officials have requested council meetings this year, but China and Russia have turned the gatherings into little more than ineffective debate sessions. The body cannot even agree to stern condemnations of North Korea, let alone a deal to effectively constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile efforts. 

Worse, the Biden administration has struggled to get other countries at the U.N. on board for even basic condemnations of the regime. Biden’s diplomats have produced ten statements. A majority of the UNSC joined only four of the statements. The United Arab Emirates, a UNSC member, endorsed only five. That’s particularly galling given the UAE’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear aggression. If Dubai is unwilling to object to the Kim family’s egregious actions, will other countries take the same stance when the Islamic Republic goes nuclear? 

India, another UNSC member, has advocated for a permanent seat on the council but only joined the last three statements. New Delhi’s willingness to accept Pyongyang’s efforts to destroy the U.N. sanctions regime should be remembered if the UNSC expansion efforts ever take off.

Non-UNSC members are not without fault. Group of Seven members Canada, Germany, and Italy have been largely absent from these statements, joining only one issued the day after North Korea’s ICBM launch in March. New Zealand has joined only three of the statements and none since March 25. Australia, another nonproliferation partner and important voice in Asia, has taken a similar approach to Wellington, except it joined a statement issued this week.

Kim likes the status quo in which Washington is distracted by other foreign policy priorities while he perfects a missile that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. mainland. Biden can change that calculus by pairing his strong military approach with serious diplomatic condemnations and sanctions that reduce the regime’s revenue and put stress on Kim’s ability to continue his nuclear and missile programs.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.