The latest round of international responses to North Korea’s increased missile tests and bomb detonations brought about much positive media attention and a collective sigh of relief from nervous onlookers subject to the bellicose language between the DPRK and the United States exchanged over the summer. However, the sanctions recently passed by a unanimous UN Security Council vote once again demonstrate the mawkish and feeble international response to North Korea’s aggressive brinksmanship—on which it has relied, along with a total disregard for international sanctions, to advance its nuclear program.
The resulting UNSC sanctions, absent of key American recommendations such as a complete oil embargo and a comprehensive blacklisting of Kim Jong Un himself, drew a sharp rebuke from North Korea, who promised to accelerate its development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The final sanctions themselves were the result of objections from Russia and China, who suddenly voiced humanitarian concerns and warned of the potential for a destabilizing effect on the peninsula. In the chronicles of international efforts to prevent North Korea from obtaining a strategically viable nuclear arsenal, the dialogue surrounding the sanctions is simply the latest iteration in fickle backhanded grand strategy among the powers on the Security Council. While Russia, China, and the United States would all prefer to see a non-nuclear DPRK, they recognize the potential outcomes of actually putting a roadblock in the way of the regime, and instead prefer to kick the can down the road.
The United States would prefer to see North Korea brought to heel by sanctions and international diplomacy as a face-saving measure and vastly more cost-effective solution rather than military posturing. This was clearly the impetus behind their proposed sanctions before they became watered down in talks with the UNSC—as North Korea’s open defiance and continued testing demonstrated the relative ineffectiveness of the sanctions. The situation becomes even more precarious when American domestic politics serve as a springboard for its foreign policy. In the case of Donald Trump, this translates to more bellicose rhetoric acting as a political currency to his base of supporters—while actual policy objectives remain as they had been for the past 20 years, fiery language at international forums such as the Trump’s speech threatening to destroy the DPRK merely advance his domestic political agenda instead of actually working towards a solution to the problem.
Russian opinions surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue are more pointed towards balance of power concerns rather than its façade of humanitarian worries. An increased American presence in Asia only worsens Russia’s influence in the region, and the staunchly authoritarian North Korea provides a check against US military power—tenuous though it may be. In this respect Russian actions towards North Korea are geared toward keeping the status quo intact, and this translates to a sudden concern for the starving and oppressed people of North Korea in the face of potential sanctions which could destabilize the regime in Pyongyang. The necessity for weak and unenforceable sanctions furthers Russian interests by allowing enforcement to be voluntary on several provisions; Russia, with a faltering economy and increasing worries over its oil supply lines to the rest of the world, appears happy to look the other way when exporting fuel on ships that just happen to make their berth in the DPRK. And with no enforcement mechanism in place for the sanctions, Russia’s participation in the North Korean nuclear debate is more strategically motivated than altruistic.
China’s role in easing sanctions and deferring any decisive action on North Korea stems from their precarious position not only as Pyongyang’s closest ally, but also from the potential fallout of a destabilized North Korea, with a gargantuan refugee and economic burden which might result from any number of factors, be they sanctions or military action. Coupled with the strong desire of China to keep North Korea propped up as a land buffer to the United States and her allies throughout the region, the reasons for diplomatic stagnation become quite clear. While initial opposition from Beijing to both economic and military measures against North Korea (such as the deployment of American THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea) was much more stalwart, Kim Jong Un’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric and North Korean advances in its missile technology somewhat dampened Chinese resolve, but only to the point that any meaningful action could be taken against the DPRK. Instead, Chinese participation in the sanctions has only strengthened the illicit networks that North Korea uses to skirt economic sanctions. Legitimate businesses along the Chinese border to the DPRK suffer the most from economic sanctions which are duly targeted at North Korea—and because of this Beijing is wary to enforce sanctions that might jeopardize its economic interests even indirectly. However, with mounting economic pressure from the US (as China’s largest trading partner), China must find a way to quell the international community’s concerns without goading the Americans into a trade war (a prospect which is immensely more destabilizing and likely than a nuclear engagement involving the DPRK).
Unfortunately, the situation in North Korea cannot be resolved without complete international cooperation and decisive action. Even more unsettling is the probability that the massive loss of life and property which would precipitate this solution grows more destructive the longer that action is delayed. If the world truly wishes to avoid a nuclearized North Korea, then they must approach the situation ready to make sacrifices from themselves and others.