Is anyone surprised? On the last day of 2019, after months of threatening the United States to ease its nuclear standoff with “a bold decision” by year’s end — or else — the leader of North Korea darkly announced that the country would unveil a new strategic weapon “in the near future.” Kim Jong-un also declared an end to a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile tests. On the first day of 2020, he did not deliver his customary, often fiery, New Year’s address. In other words, he interrupted his regularly scheduled program to bring us his latest threat.
The false calm is over; the old North Korean nuclear crisis is back on — only, it has just entered a deadly serious phase. The government in Pyongyang is looking to establish a new normal: One where it gets to threaten San Francisco with incineration, and we get to do nothing. The United States’ only option for precluding this nightmare is to bring down the hammer on the Kim regime before its capabilities expand even further.
As usual, North Korea is setting the scene and the tempo for the dance of death now unfolding. Mr. Kim has just personally decreed an end to the season of diplomacy — after personally summoning it into existence at the start of 2018.
In his New Year’s address that year, he publicly declared that the North Korean arms industry “should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles” — the power and reliability of which had been well established, he also said. In the perverse logic of North Korean signaling and gamesmanship, this actually was an indirect overture: a suggestion that Mr. Kim might now agree to an invitation that he halt tests of both nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It was also a hint that he might be willing to enter into talks with the United States and South Korea.
The gambit was a tactical probe, pure and simple. It cost Mr. Kim nothing, yet it allowed him to find out how much he could game America for.
Apparently he is not satisfied by the results of his experiment in concession-trolling: The United States has failed to lift sanctions, provide protection money or abandon South Korea. So Mr. Kim is shifting back to bare-fanged confrontation in hopes of obtaining those things the old-fashioned way.
By now we should all know the script to the North’s shakedown film. Yet many in Washington and various media outlets seem ready to blame Mr. Kim’s latest move on an American president they detest rather than on the time-honored North Korean playbook from which it is so obviously drawn. Blinded by their loathing of Mr. Trump, these people cannot see that his North Korea denuclearization policy has been more serious — and more promising — than those of previous administrations.
Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of 2017–8 is the closest thing to a strategy for crippling North Korea’s war economy that Washington has devised to date. His diplomatic courtship with Mr. Kim, despite its inerasable creepiness, also had a rationale: The voluntary denuclearization of the world’s most totalitarian state could never occur without the assent of its ultimate decision maker.
That experiment has now been run, and we know, conclusively, the result. Hardly surprising, but arguably worth establishing without a doubt.
Pyongyang will never denuclearize voluntarily. Ever. It, too, says that it supports “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but for the North Korean government that is code language for an end to Seoul’s defense treaty with Washington and the withdrawal of American troops and missiles from South Korea. Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and lots of both, because these are the indispensable instruments for achieving the unconditional unification the North has been relentlessly pursuing since its surprise attack against the South in June 1950.
If we are to protect ourselves and our allies from North Korea’s evermore credible nuclear blackmail, we must respond now — with an aggressive long-term program to reduce its killing power overseas and eventually neuter the Kim threat. Many of the pieces for such a program are already in place. What is needed now, in the words of David Maxwell, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is “Maximum Pressure 2.0.”
North Korea’s weapons programs are built on a precarious and highly vulnerable economic base. The country arguably is the world’s most distorted and highly dependent economy. It is desperately in need of foreign subsidies and illicit revenue from abroad, and now it is in a sanctions vise. The United States and the United Nations have enacted broad and punitive strictures that are already beginning to throttle Mr. Kim’s war economy, forcing Pyongyang to spend down its foreign currency reserves and strategic stockpiles of food and energy.
The beauty of this trap, from an American standpoint, is that these sanctions cannot be relaxed unless Washington says so: Only Mr. Trump can alter America’s, and the United States can veto any resolution to water down the United Nations sanctions. China and Russia are currently lobbying for relief, but America can brush this off.
Moreover, with our unique resource — the dollar, still the world’s main reserve currency — we can force reluctant sanctioneers to get religion on squeezing the North if they hope to have access to trade and finance in the dollar zone. We have much more leverage on China than many realize, by the way: Numbers from the International Monetary Fund earlier this year show that China transacts a higher share of its trade in American dollars that do Indonesia or Brazil.
Yet with all its summit-chasing over the past year and a half, Washington has been unfathomably lackadaisical about implementing its own sanctions: Since the first Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore in June 2018, the number of people and entities officially designated as sanctions-busters has plummeted. We urgently need to make up for lost time.
Getting serious about paralyzing North Korea’s economy also means cutting off its illegal revenues — from terrorist states and organizations in the Middle East, from cybercrime and from the rackets that its embassies run all over the world with diplomatic immunity. The United States and its allies should also be on a permanent hunt to freeze and seize North Korean assets that are stashed or hidden overseas. The Otto Warmbier North Korea Nuclear Sanctions and Enforcement Act that Congress recently passed and the $500 million court judgment in 2018 against North Korea for Mr. Warmbier’s death bolster our license for this dragnet.
North Korea’s killing power can be further reduced through diplomacy and deterrence, by strengthening our alliances with South Korea and Japan, enhancing civil defense in both countries, and ramping up missile defense overseas and at home. Better deterrence in the Korean Peninsula also means schooling Pyongyang that it has much to lose through its studied brinkmanship. Why not see to it that any North Korean submarines that venture into the open seas never return to port?
Now that the United States is out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, why not start placing medium-range missiles within reach of North Korea? Those would be in reach of China, too, of course. Could this incentivize Beijing to be more helpful with what we mean by North Korea’s denuclearization?
Human rights should also figure in our threat-reduction program. Did anyone notice Pyongyang’s shrill reaction last month after Washington criticized its human rights record at the United Nations? It threatened that America would “pay dearly.” The Kim regime gets frantic when the issue comes up; it seems to fear few things as much as the prospect of having to face its own Nuremberg trials.
Mr. Trump’s declarations on North Korea’s human rights abuses were splendid at first, but then he let the matter slide as he chased a nuclear deal. Yet Pyongyang’s terrorism at home and its terrorism abroad are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked. Reducing the threat Mr. Kim poses to his subjects will help reduce the threat he poses to the rest of us, too.
Success in this endeavor will require nerve and constancy. But we should be prepared for nothing less.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a founding director of the United States Committee on Human Rights in North Korea.