UN Sanctions, North Korean Threats

The UN Security Council has unanimously condemned “in the strongest possible terms” North Korea’s February nuclear test (
its third). It expanded financial sanctions, mandated close checks of cargo entering and exiting North Korea, and warned of future measure if Pyongyang persists in its provocative behavior.

Are these new sanctions likely to bring about an immediate and positive change in North Korean policy?

Probably not. Economic sanctions usually require a long period of time to “bite,” and they must be fully multilateral in scope. These new sanctions can further constrain the resources available to the resource-poor North Korean regime and thereby its broader policy choices. To have that effect, however, sound implementation is critical. This is particularly true of China, through which much of North Korea’s trade and financial transactions flow.

What is the underlying objective of the sanctions regime?

The goal of this and previous actions is to sharpen the choices of North Korea, to disabuse it of the idea that the international community will both accept it as a state with nuclear weapons and permit international economic activity on a normal basis. Only when it understands that it can only have one or the other will it even consider making a fundamental choice between the two. The transition to a new regime creates, in the medium term, the possibility of such a policy shift. If that does not happen, the international community will have to contain the consequences.

What should we make of North Korea’s threat to attack the United States?

Certainly, those threats cannot be dismissed out of hand. But Pyongyang has issued similar warnings before and not acted upon them. The regime has domestic reasons to make create a crisis atmosphere, and while it glories in shows of bravado and brinksmanship, it is not suicidal. Actually, the greatest danger in the near term is a conventional but limited military action against South Korea. Look for Seoul and Washington to strengthen deterrence against such attack and prepare a proportionate response should deterrence fail.

What is North Korea’s strategy that is driving these actions?

Just as the United States, South Korea and others have sought to sharpen Pyongyang’s choices, so too is North Korea trying to sharpen ours. There is a test of wills at play here. The salutary consequence of the current struggle is that it has led China to seriously question its past “even-handed” policy, which had the effect of indulging North Korea in its provocations.