It’s time to face reality. When it comes to a nuclear-armed North Korea, the question is no longer “if” but “when.” Denuclearization, the goal underlying UN Security Council sanctions, has become a chimera. Though there’s much that we don’t know about North Korea, there are some things—at least four—we do know for certain. None of them provides any basis for believing that Pyongyang will forgo nuclear weapons because of external political and economic pressure.
The first is that North Korea’s leaders have been relentless in their pursuit of nuclear arms—perhaps as far back as the 1950s, and certainly since work, backed by Soviet technical assistance, began on the Yongbyon reactor in 1979. Severe economic constraints haven’t dimmed their determination. North Korea’s GDP (calculated using purchasing power parity), $40 billion in 2015, ranked about eighty-seventh in the world, just behind Tunisia, which has less than half of North Korea’s population. North Korea’s income per capita (a rough measure of living standards) that year was $1,700, placing it on par with South Sudan, or 213th in the world, near the very bottom. UNICEF reports that North Koreans suffer from “chronic food insecurity and limited access to quality health [sic] and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, which have resulted in poor health outcomes. An estimated eighteen million are food insecure and two hundred thousand children are affected by acute malnutrition.” Despite this privation, North Korea’s leaders have doggedly allocated money to their nuclear-weapons program, passing a milestone with the first detonation in 2006 and conducting five more thereafter (2009, 2013, two in 2016, and 2017), and a series of ballistic missiles besides. We have no reason to expect that North Korea’s behavior on this front will change.
The Trump administration hopes that sanctions and political isolation will work and that it’s a matter of ratcheting up both as never before. They’re in for a disappointment because the second thing we know about North Korea is that it has weathered a series of Security Council sanctions resolutions, doesn’t fear them, and cares not a whit about international opprobrium.
The most recent resolutions adopted (unanimously) on August 5 and September 11 really tightened the screws. Together, they ban imports of North Korea’s coal, lead, iron ore, textiles and seafood. They prohibit natural-gas sales to the country, cap annual crude-oil sales at the amount exported to North Korea in the twelve months preceding the September resolution, and limit the sale of refined petroleum products to two million barrels per year. The resolutions also forbid new or renewed work contracts and permits for North Koreans who work abroad and earn money ( $500,000 annually , according to the U.S. government) for Pyongyang’s coffers through remittances. They mandate the closure of joint ventures and the restrict the initiation of new ones without UN approval. Additionally, they freeze the assets of three high-level North Korean civilian and military organizations. Preceding the resolutions were others that condemned North Korea’s 2003 withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ballistic missile tests.
Yet there is not a scintilla of evidence that these penalties and censures have led Pyongyang to reconsider its decision to develop nuclear weapons and test ballistic missiles, let alone relinquish them. Could the latest resolutions change Pyongyang’s path? Possibly, but don’t bet big money that it will.
Kim Jong-un has remained unmoved and defiant in the face of sanctions. After the August sanctions resolution his foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, lambasted the Council for acting illegally and abusing its authority and reminded its members that they had tested the very weapons that they were now punishing North Korea for testing. Pyongyang, he vowed, would “not flinch even an inch,” would continue testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and would never bargain them away. As for Washington, Ri warned that North Korea now had “intercontinental attack capabilities” and that “the entire U.S. mainland is in our firing range.” It’s a safe bet that future UN Security Council resolutions will elicit similarly truculent ripostes.
Would harsher economic punishment, such as a ban on oil exports to North Korea, change Kim’s mind? Unlikely, though we may never know because there’s virtually no chance that China, Pyongyang’s principal energy supplier by far (approximately 520 metric tonnes of crude oil per year plus another 270,000 metric tonnes of oil products), and Russia (forty thousand metric tonnes of crude oil annually, although sales appear to have increased since 2016), the next most important source, would implement an embargo, or sustain it for long if did. Neither of them would allow an oil shutoff to be included in the September 11 resolution despite intense U.S. lobbying and reports in the run-up to the vote that Beijing might relent. Vladimir Putin ruled out an oil embargo days in advance, insisting that the embargo wouldn’t change North Korean government’s behavior but would hurt North Korea’s longsuffering people. Putin has his own reasons for advancing this argument, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, especially because North Korea can cope with an oil-export ban using various workarounds: increased reliance on coal, reducing oil consumption, turning to biomass-based synthetic fuel and coal liquefaction , or all of these combined.