Drums of War Trump UN North Korean Sanctions
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(13 Aug. 2017) — An unusual show of unanimity in the United Nations Security Council imposing new, meaningful targeted commodity and financial sanctions against North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -DPRK) is on the brink of collapse with the bellicosity from U.S. President Donald Trump. The response by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the UN sanctions was not unexpected. The response from Donald Trump in return was.
President Trump’s response to the DPRK runs contrary to what appeared to be broad cooperation with China on the way forward. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Security Council that resolution 2371 (2017) “is a strong, united step towards holding North Korea accountable for its behaviour.” Most importantly, she thanked China “for the important contributions it made to the resolution.”
China’s Ambassador Liu Jieyi, in a similar cooperative approach, stated that resolution 2371 “contain explicit provisions against launches by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea using ballistic-missile technology.” He stated further that China opposes the DPRK’s “launching activities which violate Council resolutions and defy the will of the international community.” Ambassador Liu also noted that the U.S. had recently reiterated “that it is not seeking regime change or a regime collapse” in the DPRK; “that it is in no hurry to push for the reunification of the peninsula,” and that the U.S. “indicated that its troops will not push through the thirty-eight parallel.” Further, China hoped that the U.S. translates these undertakings into concrete policies towards the DPRK, including resumption of the Six-Party Talks which is called for in resolution 2371. Liu also stressed the hope that the U.S. and the DPRK “will immediately take effective action to prevent the situation from further escalating, create conditions for the resumption of talks and undertake efforts to bring, at an early date, the nuclear issue of the peninsula back to the right track, that of seeking a peaceful solution through dialogue and consultation.”
What was essentially a significant victory in the UN Security Council for collective
responsibility for maintaining international peace and security has suffered a huge set back. In response to Kim Jong-un’s threats to retaliate against the United States for the UN sanctions, and public reports of North Korea’s advances in possible nuclear armed ICBMs threatening the U.S. homeland, Donald Trump’s bellicose warning to Kim Jong-un sent shockwaves around the world. Criticisms of Trump by world leaders, as well as by U.S. political leaders, including members of Trump’s Republican Party were as swift as Trump’s statements were shocking.
Using language reckless and unprecedented for a U.S. president, Donald Trump warned Kim Jong-un about any future threats against the United States saying, “They will be met by fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He followed up with further inflamatory threats against North Korea warning the U.S. military is “cocked and ready.” The world began to wonder which of the two leaders were more rational in their approach to a very serious situation. Most importantly, Trump’s words more than Kim Jong-un’s left friends and foes alike greatly concerned.
Donald Trump’s belligerence has increased rather than reduced tensions in the Korean peninsula. By not giving the new sanctions an opportunity to work before threatening resort to military action, president Trump appeared to have shunned diplomacy as an option.
A few years ago I contributed a chapter to a book, “International Sanctions: Between words and wars in the global system” (Eds. Peter Wallensteen and Carina Staibano, 2005). The title suggests that sanctions, when used wisely and effectively as a tool collectively by the international community, in particular the UN Security Council, to coerce individuals, groups, or governments acting contrary to international norms to change their errant behavior, is a rational course to follow before resorting to military action or threat of military action. Experience has shown that targeted sanctions as a coercive measure increases the likelihood of effective diplomacy. Military threats, on the other hand, elicit a response in kind and often make the situation worse.
The unanimous Security Council vote on August 5, 2017 signaled to the world its clearest resolve yet to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s support for $1 billion in trade restrictions on the purchase of North Korean commodities – coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood – could be a crippling blow to North Korea’s economy. Coupled with prohibited financial services these sanctions provide an opportunity to force Kim Jong-un to return to the Six-Part Talks. China as the major importer of North Korean exports assumed the lead to implement and enforce these sanctions. The future of the UN sanctions rest with China’s determination of what’s best in its own self-interest.
China’s support in the UN Security Council was the strongest message yet from Chinese president Xi Jinping that North Korea had gone too far and that China was prepared to sufficiently choke North Korea’s economy to give diplomacy a chance. We should not be naïve to believe that North Korea would quickly comply with the wishes of the international community because of the UN sanctions. Much depends on China’s role in enforcing them. China’s support for the sanctions resolution is a strong indication that this time around China was on board as a valuable partner. The question now arises as to whether China can overcome Donald Trump’s bellicosity and whether Beijing’s efforts will be sufficient to calm Pyongyang and prevent military confrontation in the region.
China’s support for resolution 2371 shows that Beijing has a vested interest in bringing calm to the Korean peninsula and the entire region. Will Donald Trump give Xi Jingping the opportunity to do so? China sees Donald Trump’s belligerence, as do most of the world, as inflaming and making more complicated a very delicate situation Publicly, China has made its position clear in the event of military confrontation. Should the U.S. strike first, China will side with North Korea; should North Korea strike first, China will be neutral, thus leaving North Korea to the fury of the United States.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised on basis and timing of Donald Trump’s threats. As widely reported, the status of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is not new information. Similarly, the intelligence assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability is not a finding by the entire intelligence community (IC). The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), which made a similar claim a few years ago, appears to be the only IC member out front on this assessment.
Even then, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and threat is not new to President Trump. Before leaving office President Barack Obama warned president-elect Trump that North Korea was the most dangerous threat to U.S. national security. Obama administration experts also briefed Trump’s transition team about the North Korean threat, and President Trump presumably receives daily IC briefings on this and other threats to the United States. If this was not new information, and president Trump was familiar with this threat all along, why did he seem so unprepared to respond to North Korea’s response to resolution 2371?
Did President Trump not understand or was he not briefed on the importance of China’s unprecedented support of the new economic sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime, or the potential long-term benefits of China’s partnership in enforcing them? If he was, did he intend by his bellicose threats to scuttle the UN sanctions, which prized the door open for diplomacy, and sounded the drums of war for other reasons? The U.S president should have been ready with a response that did not reflect the North Korean leader’s threats? Many are asking with a sense of apprehension, “Who let the crazies out?”
© 2017 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post