As the White House and the Kim regime play a game of chicken with each other the media is once again ramping up for a full-scale freak out about North Korea. Remember the last one a few months back? Yeah, nothing happened, just like every other time. There are some new and important developments this time around though, which should be not overlooked including North Korea allegedly testing a hydrogen bomb and President Trump threatening to pull out of an important trade deal with South Korea, one which would create a deep schism between the U.S. and South Korea, and ultimately hand a victory to communist China and North Korea that the Kim family never could have accomplished on their own.
Much has been made of military options, and plenty more ink is still left to be spilled on this issue (I’ve done my share) but there is also talk about levying sanctions against North Korea. Could the United States and/or the international community wage economic warfare against North Korea as a way to back down the Kim regime and get them to respect international norms? The case does not look good.
First, there are already a ton of sanctions on North Korea which have failed to bring about the desired result, although they have without a doubt hampered the speed at which they are able to develop to include vertical and horizontal weapons proliferation. At the same time, those sanctions completely failed to prevent North Korea from obtaining an atomic bomb and if recent reports are to be believed, a hydrogen bomb as well. Sanctions did not work well against the Saddam regime and lessons can be learned from that experience.
Second, North Korea is a pariah state which is largely isolated from the global economy. The impact that further sanctions would have on the government is difficult to imagine. One country that does engage in trade with North Korea is Russia who sells them oil and also has a political and expat presence in Pyongyang. Convincing Russia to sanction North Korea would be no mean feat for the United States, especially in the current political environment. I’m sure you can recall the recent Trump/Russia soap opera. It seems that the United States has very little equity in bargaining with the Russian government at this point.
Something the U.S. government could do is end foreign aid to North Korea. Stop sending food and oil into the country. This would also have consequences. Think of it like this, for any dictator their primary objective is regime preservation. They want to remain in power at all costs. After all, when a dictator is removed by his people it isn’t in a reasonable democratic transition. The way a dictator relinquishes power is when someone puts a bullet in the back of his head. Ending foreign aid would starve North Korea’s population to death and the elite class that makes up the Kim patronage network would begin to revolt against a leader who is now unable to maintain their privileges. Kim would lash out in some manner or another, almost certainly with violence.
North Korea is a complicated issue that every President since Eisenhower has had to grapple with. The reason why past administrations have not been successful in “solving” North Korea is not simply because they were weak or stupid, this is a vexing foreign policy issue with solutions that start at really bad and end with apocalyptic.