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.