With tensions continuing to build between the United States and North Korea, there’s growing talk by politicians and TV pundits that we are on the brink of war. In truth, we shouldn’t be anywhere close.
This increasingly hot war of words — including loose talk about the probability of war — does nothing to bring us closer to where we need to be on North Korea, especially when military options short of war remain on the table. In fact, with millions of lives at stake, waging a war of words is a distraction from the serious task at hand. Any kind of war — especially nuclear war — should not be an option till all other options are exhausted. And, in the case of North Korea, several roads remain not taken.
First, North Korea is not, as some claim, “sanctioned-out.” We are nowhere near to applying the same type of restraints on North Korea that were successful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table.
In fact, the breadth of sanctions we have placed on North Korea to date are far less than what was applied in earlier crises on Russia, Syria and Iran. While our sanctions on North Korea have clearly escalated, we still have the option to penalize and seize the assets of North Korea’s enablers in other countries that enable Pyongyang to evade the full brunt of financial measures. We can expand our focus on shipping and work with our allies to deny maritime insurance to the vessels heading to or from North Korea. Last month, we targeted sanctions on 20 such vessels. Many more North Korean vessels are active and engaged in illicit activities.
We also can do more to expose those who use North Korean slave labor and to block any remittances back to Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Second, none of this will work without more pressure to hold the reluctant Chinese government accountable for the commitments it has made and to target more Chinese entities that support the North Korean government. The overwhelming majority of North Korea’s trade — 90 percent — is with or facilitated by China. Despite agreed-upon U.N. sanctions, much of this economic activity continues. Actions should include targeting a greater number of Chinese banks that deal with North Korea, fining their U.S. subsidiaries and freezing their U.S. assets.
This year, the international banking transaction network, known as SWIFT, moved to prevent North Korean banks from using the global messaging system to facilitate international transactions, but that doesn’t impact Chinese banks that transact for the North Koreans. We should consider expanding this ban to include Chinese banks with any North Korean connections.
Finally, where are our allies on all of this? Instead of threatening a bilateral war between the United States and the North Korea, we should be working with allies — including South Korea and Japan — to threaten increased multilateral pressure to choke the North Korean regime. While economic sanctions have not proved to be effective yet, they have not been fully exhausted and tested. Part of the reason the previous administration succeeded in bringing Iran to the table — regardless of the flaws of their final deal — was due to internationally coordinated sanctions. Thankfully, the U.N. Security Council has adopted three rounds of such sanctions this year.
With millions of lives hanging in the balance, the last thing we need is to have politicians and pundits predicting war. It’s neither an accurate nor a helpful way to treat a complex international challenge.