Anyone who is remotely familiar with the United Nations’ system understands how boring Security Council debates can be. Doubly so when the issue on the docket is North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a problem that never seems to go away.
The meetings proceed like clockwork. The Russian and Chinese delegations typically recite a familiar script, where UN sanctions are blamed for North Korea’s catastrophic economic situation and the United States is treated as the intransigent party. The U.S. delegation, meanwhile, fingers Russia and China for lax enforcement of the sanctions, reminds diplomats in the room that Pyongyang habitually violates UN resolutions, and cites the Kim dynasty's unwillingness to negotiate as the central impediment to progress. After the customary speeches, the Security Council adjourns with nothing to show for it.
Russia and China, however, are apparently trying to make a bold play to shift the debate. Both are preparing to unveil a draft Security Council Resolution that would lift or at least relax the export bans and import restrictions that have constricted the North Korean economy since 2017. The resolution would also permit countries around the world to employ North Korean workers, in addition to exempting inter-Korean economic projects from the sanctions.
The Biden administration is likely to be as frosty to the proposal as the Trump administration was when Moscow and Beijing first unveiled it nearly two years ago. Back then, the effort died on the table—there was so little support for the measure that the authors didn’t even bother to request a vote on it.
Yet while the United States and its Western allies on the Security Council will have no trouble using their veto to kill any effort toward sanctions relief, one can’t avoid asking the obvious question: what have economic sanctions on North Korea actually delivered?
It goes without saying that North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned countries on earth. Since 2006, the UN has adopted ever stronger penalties on the North Korean economy in a bid to punish Pyongyang for nuclear and missile testing, deprive the Kim dynasty of the resources it needs to continue developing those programs and to convince the North Korean government about the urgency of negotiating denuclearization.
Those sanctions, however, have had no impact in altering Kim Jong-un’s calculus on the nuclear question. While it’s true North Korea’s economy is dismal, Kim himself remains as stridency opposed to denuclearization today as he was when he first began direct negotiations with Donald Trump in 2018. For the North, the last few months have been a hive of activity on the military front. Pyongyang re-started its main plutonium reactor in August and has engaged in an array of increasingly sophisticated missile launches, including the testing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile last month. This does not look like a country that is especially open to Washington’s denuclearization demands. On the contrary, the recent testing reflects just how ineffective U.S. and UN sanctions have truly been at accomplishing anything concrete in the policy realm. If the U.S. objective is to nudge the North Koreans towards becoming a nuclear-weapons-free state, then Washington has moved backward from the moment Kim’s late father ordered the North’s first underground nuclear weapons test fifteen years ago.
Many foreign policy analysts will blame the unwillingness of countries around the world to adhere to the UN sanctions for the dismal results thus far. The conventional answer, as articulated by U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield during her remarks late last month, is to continue putting the economic pressure on. But this totally misses the mark, for if Kim isn’t buckling to sanctions now, it’s highly unlikely more will do the trick. Slapping more sanctions on the North simply doubles down on what clearly amounts to a failed approach.
The reason the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia are having such a difficult time persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize is that Pyongyang has no intention of denuclearizing. Washington is pushing on a locked door.
Viewed from North Korea’s perspective, it's not hard to see why keeping an operational nuclear deterrent makes sense. The country is surrounded by neighbors infinitely more prosperous and militarily capable than itself, with some (Japan and South Korea) having the benefit of being under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The North Koreans may depend on China for 90 percent of its trade and talk up their relationship in public, but Beijing can’t be relied upon as a strategic ally. Friendship treaties aside, would President Xi Jinping really deploy Chinese troops to the Korean Peninsula if Pyongyang requested it? For Kim Jong-un, relying on China or anyone else to satisfy North Korea’s security needs would be a leap of faith—and faith isn’t exactly a recipe for good policy in the cut-throat world of international politics.
The Biden administration is adamant that it’s willing to meet North Korean officials anytime, anywhere, without preconditions. U.S. special envoy Sung Kim has sought to reassure North Korea that Washington holds no hostile intent.
Pragmatic diplomacy and principled deterrence are the most appropriate tools to manage the North Korea issue. But the only way diplomacy can succeed is if U.S. officials vastly limit expectations as to what they can achieve.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.