Sanctions alone will not bring Kim Jong-un to heel
North Korean leader will not abandon his nuclear weapons programme until the United States agrees to dialogue, and a return to six-party talks is one possible path to restoring stability in the region
North Korea’s response to the toughest United Nations Security Council sanctions in a generation has been typically bombastic. Blaming arch-enemy the United States for being behind the measures imposed for two long-range missile tests last month, state media bristled with threats of retaliation. Talks proposed by South Korea during a rare meeting of the rival Koreas’ foreign ministers at the Association of South East Asian Nations gathering in Manila were largely rejected. Yet dialogue is the only way the crisis can be resolved, and a call in the latest UN resolution for a resumption of long-stalled six-party talks has to be given consideration.
China has already given its backing to the talks, even though successive rounds hosted in Beijing between 2003 and 2009 failed to halt North Korea’s weapons programmes. The negotiations, involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, did achieve breakthroughs though; in 2005, Pyongyang pledged to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes”, and two years later, a deal was struck on a series of steps to implement the agreement. But dialogue broke down over mistrust between North Korea and the US and that remains a stumbling block to bringing security to Northeast Asia.
Nuclear bomb blasts and tests of rockets with the potential to reach the continental US and American shows of military force have created a dangerous environment. The sanctions dramatically raise the pressure on North Korea, targeting about US$1 billion in foreign income from exports including coal, iron ore and seafood, joint ventures and investment. But while US officials have praised the measures and China has agreed to them, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said they will not force North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to give up his weapons. As Wang rightly said, that will only happen through talks; years of sanctions have not been enough to halt arms development. Kim seeks a non-aggression pact from the US and a guarantee it will be enforced.
US President Donald Trump has yet to show willingness for dialogue. He has stuck firmly to his country’s position that talks can only take place if Pyongyang first scraps its weapons. But, as North Korea’s allies China and Russia have also pointed out, US threats like war games with South Korea near the North Korean border and a missile shield system being built in South Korea with deeply intrusive radar capabilities are also impediments.
Nor will North Korea easily, if at all, give up its deterrent. Sanctions will not stop the tests and any use of force would have dire consequences for the Korean peninsula. Talks are the only viable option. The six-party process, with the international community’s support, offers hope.