Given the mixed results of the past, could sanctions work on North Korea moving forward?
Following the Mar-a-Lago summit, President Trump touted his cooperation with President Xi Jinping on North Korea as a diplomatic win. In the weeks since the summit, the outlines of the administration’s policy toward the peninsula have become more clear. Under the name of “maximum pressure and engagement,” Secretary Tillerson has outlined a strategy that includes more aggressive sanctions, while leaving military options open. Yet at the same time, he has promised that the United States would be willing to engage in negotiations—long a Chinese demand—were North Korea to express a willingness to discuss denuclearization. He has even stated that the United States is not seeking regime change nor unification and could provide North Korea security guarantees.
The history of such two-track efforts, which have resurfaced repeatedly since the first North Korean nuclear crisis some 25 years ago, are often plagued by complications that undermine the strategy. In Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea, we investigate the history of these efforts, which are dogged by two problems. The first is that sanctions require coordination. At various times the United States has faced difficulty aligning not only China, but South Korea as well, around more robust pressure on the North. Since the onset of the second nuclear crisis in 2002, multilateral and other sanctions have had the perverse effect of pushing North Korea’s trade toward China, which now accounts for nearly 90 percent of bilateral merchandise trade. The changing geography of trade compounds these coordination problems. Getting North Korea to move has increasingly become a question of how to get China to move.
Xi Jinping’s decision to cooperate with the United States with respect to North Korea was also influenced in part by US sticks and carrots. Military blandishments might have helped spur China’s new engagement on the issue, reminding Beijing that North Korea is a strategic liability. The decision to abjure naming China a currency manipulator and threats of secondary sanctions—placing sanctions on Chinese entities doing business with North Korea—also might have had some effect. But the basis of cooperation with China undoubtedly rests on US commitments to re-enter negotiations if North Korea signals interest, with the inevitable discussion of quid-pro-quos and inducements that such negotiations necessarily entail.
This brings us to the second barrier to such negotiations: the bargaining and sequencing problems associated with getting to talks and concluding an agreement. The United States, as well as China, South Korea, and Japan, have long held that North Korea’s denuclearization should be the focus of multilateral talks. As North Korea’s nuclear and missile program has matured, however, Pyongyang has shown declining interest in such negotiations. North Korea has shied away from talks altogether or floated ideas such as a peace regime negotiation in order replace the armistice and build confidence. Needless to say, it would be difficult for any American administration, and particularly this one, to sit down to negotiate a peace regime with a nuclear North Korea capable of striking the American homeland.
It would be difficult for any American administration, and particularly this one, to sit down to negotiate a peace regime with a nuclear North Korea.
And once talks start, what should be on the table? The United States has been reluctant to submit to blackmail; trading concessions simply to place a freeze on North Korea’s program. Who moves—or blinks—first?
In coming weeks, there are two things to watch. The first is whether China can succeed in moving North Korea to accept negotiations, or whether pressure from all sides pushes North Korea toward more provocations, which may include a sixth nuclear test or more missile launches. Despite protests to the contrary, the Trump administration has shown a willingness to exercise some “strategic patience” of its own. This diplomatic approach toward North Korea, which similarly relied on ramping up economic pressure while restating the willingness to negotiate, was previously criticized by the Trump administration.
Such patience is not limitless, however, and if no progress is forthcoming, the administration may feel constrained to pursue unilateral options. The fate of negotiations could well hinge on whether these unilateral actions—in the form of secondary sanctions or even military threats—are credible. If not, both China and North Korea could well hold to the status quo.
The second thing to watch is the effect of the South Korean elections. With a new president in Seoul, coordination problems might resurface as the South seeks to re-open its own ties to the North, effectively shuttered after a decade of conservative party rule. Engagement with the North has long been favored by the center-left in South Korea, and president-elect Moon has outlined a wide array of initiatives toward the North. But these efforts to engage could well put the two allies at loggerheads. As Hard Target shows, neither sanctions nor inducements provide silver bullets for the North Korean nuclear problem, and are only likely to work in nuanced combination.