The United Nations Security Council has imposed strong new economic sanctions on North Korea, notable for the unqualified participation of China. Previous Chinese government reluctance to participate was not publicly in evidence this time. South Korea has also been an active participant. That is important in a complex diplomatic duel with the North, which has nuclear military as well as economic dimensions.
Ambassador Nikki Haley, the top United States representative to the world organization, was publicly visible in actively negotiating with China’s Permanent Representative Liu Jieyi. Presumably, this is the tip of a varied array of private interchange and negotiation. President Donald Trump appropriately tweeted praise for the support of Russia as well as China in the vote and noted “Very big financial impact!”
The new sanctions under Resolution 2371 impose a total ban on North Korea’s exports of coal, in addition to iron, lead and seafood. Travel is banned and assets frozen for 14 officials and four entities. This significantly ratchets up pressure on Pyongyang, which relies increasingly on black markets for desperately needed money. Monitoring and enforcement of a total ban will be easier.
Beyond Pyongyang’s fanatical and apocalyptic rhetoric, evidence is apparent that the regime is feeling the great long-term strain. During May 6-9, 2016, North Korea held a Communist Party Congress. Tight security control of the enormous choreographed show was utterly self-evident. The last such party congress was in 1980, an occasion for regime founder Kim Il-sung to indicate succession of power to his son Kim Jong-il.
Current dictator Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, assumed power following the death of his father in 2011. He wore a business suit for the public party show, a departure from the usual uniform. Kim publicly acknowledged economic challenges, a remarkable understatement which nonetheless was long overdue.
The Communist Party Congress took place in the context of continuing tension, punctuated by occasional violence and aggressive moves, regarding South Korea. In 2013, North Korea announced a “state of war” with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack. Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War, and cut the military “hot line” communications link with the south.
Developments in recent years could have been the prelude to war, yet there is no concrete evidence that North Korea has been mobilizing to invade South Korea. Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities increase but remain rudimentary.
Kim has publicly criticized those in the military “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of a major military shakeup, he assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, adding to a series of celebratory titles. He has been ruthless in gruesome executions of people suspected of disloyalty, including close family members.
In this truly frightening context, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provides an appropriate firm but calm style. The day after UN vote, he and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea joined in praising the outcome, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines that included China and North Korea.
ASEAN represents a growing network of regional entities reinforcing the UN and associated global institutions. In July 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague supported the Philippines in a major maritime dispute with China.
Preparation for war is essential regarding North Korea, but there is still no need to assume war will happen. The Korean War Armistice has held for 64 years.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.