It’s Groundhog Day with North Korea

“Again, again!” That’s what a child exclaims when he thinks something is fun. North Korea (DPRK) tested its fourth nuclear device on January 6, 2016; it’s now toasted Lunar New Year with a missile launch, a day ahead of its announced window beginning February 8, 2016. Pyongyang is reaching for the stars while it has trouble growing enough food in its soil to nourish its citizens.

And what is the response from the outside? Another round of the same—“grave concern” and “severe consequences.” Again, we see efforts to expand and tighten sanctions. We don’t know what the U.N. Security Council will manage to negotiate, given China’s reluctance toward more punch in the sanctions regime. But the governments of South Korea, Japan, and the United States are certainly making headway toward unilateral and multilateral sanctions. 

Round and round we go

But no matter how many exclamation points we add to words of disapproval and how many sanctions we generate, they are not likely to change North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Even though Banco Delta Asia (BDA) sanctions in 2005 have been deemed successful in hurting North Korea’s access to funds, there is good evidence that North Koreans learned to circumvent the financial blockade. Plenty of shadow banks and cash-only transactions in China happily service North Korea, and the latter managed to increase international trade in the years following the BDA sanctions, even achieving a current accounts surplus in 2011 for the first time in in its history.

[N]o matter how many exclamation points we add to words of disapproval and how many sanctions we generate, they are not likely to change North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

We need to discard or substantively revise old scripts and craft new tools to make sure that words and sanctions don’t fall on deaf ears in Pyongyang. Otherwise, like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” the cycle will repeat itself—and the repetition itself will become the new normal. 

There are a few changes this time around in response to the alleged H-bomb test and the possibility of a rocket launch, and most of them would destabilize the region even more. The call for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arsenal (and not just rely on the U.S. security umbrella) has re-emerged and is gaining traction. After the February 2013 North Korean nuclear test, polls showed about 60 percent of respondents in South Korea believing their country should go nuclear. Korea Gallup Poll revealed on January 15, 2016 that 54 percent favor developing nuclear weapons, with 38 percent against. But this time, more political leaders are also joining the nuclear bandwagon. 

In Japan, the missile defense system and naval destroyers have been readied to shoot down incoming North Korean missiles, providing the Japanese government with useful justification for an offense-capable military establishment and posture to face urgent contingencies. 

The trouble is, Kim Jong-un’s regime is hell-bent on advancing its nuclear ambition. His what-doesn’t-kill-me-makes-me-stronger mentality means international “punishments” don’t deter him and his leadership. If sanctions reduce luxury goods for Kim’s supporters, who would complain, lest his or her head roll like so many others in recent years? Dry up its access to financial networks to slow down the nuclear program? The regime will squeeze its population more. Yesterday just keeps repeating itself.

Intransigence in Beijing and Pyongyang

Well-targeted sanctions and enforcement are no doubt in order. In addition to reducing access to hard cash, reducing the availability of materials for the nuclear program is key. However, much of the flow goes across the Chinese-North Korean border—not because the Chinese government intentionally wishes it, but because export controls in China are weak. Even legitimate trade in parts and technology, for example, between Germany and China, gets diverted to the North. 

The United States and South Korea have repeatedly expected China to midwife a new normal: a better-behaved DPRK. But the United States was wrong from the outset to rely on China, starting with the George W. Bush administration. China’s own interests, not bilateral ties and regional stability, drive Beijing when it comes to the DPRK. Unless Chinese territory, the health of its citizens (through radiation), and political stability are threatened, China will not act. We have no idea what the Chinese red line would be.

The United States was wrong from the outset to rely on China.

Inside North Korea, new realities aren’t auspicious for international cooperation. Kim Jong-un is not his father, Kim Jong-il. With the latter, we might have been able to negotiate a freeze or reduction in the long-term because the nuclear program was a means to an end: to get security assurance from the United States and economic access internationally. We had a genuine opening toward this end at the closing of the Bill Clinton administration. But Kim Jong-un may not have a clear sense of means and ends, nor of the complexities of geopolitics and diplomacy. He seems to want nukes for the sake of nukes; more and faster is better without a clear strategic or diplomatic goal. 

Exiting the cycle

“Groundhog Day” made viewers yearn for a way out—how do we make tomorrow different from today? 

Here’s an idea: Throw North Korea out of the United Nations. The DPRK worked so hard to be admitted into the prestigious international club in 1991, but has flagrantly violated many of its rules and norms. Chapter II, articles 5 and 6 of the U.N. Charter sanction suspension and restoration of “the exercise of the rights and privileges of membership.” Also, a member “which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization.” 

Pyongyang seems to care more about international than bilateral ties since it prizes the limelight and glamor of the global stage.

Of course, this would involve a lot of controversy and politics. China and Russia would certainly oppose. But the point is this: Disregarding and disrespecting club rules should have severe consequences. Pyongyang seems to care more about international than bilateral ties since it prizes the limelight and glamor of the global stage. When the World Economic Forum dis-invited the DPRK from its January meeting in Davos, Pyongyang was demonstrably upset. 

European countries, as well as Brazil and Malaysia, who have diplomatic ties and trade with the DPRK, could also recall their ambassadors from Pyongyang to make explicit their disapproval of its nuclear activities. And the gatekeepers of the Svalbard Treaty, which allows the exploration of the rich mineral (including coal) resource and fish stocks in this area of the Arctic should consider revoking the DPRK’s entry in January. 

These would be clear messages that even pro-engagement advocates have their limits. Let Pyongyang consider what its fate would be like if the world truly turned its back on the country.