North Korea nuclear crisis

What next from Kim Jong-un, as Trump piles on the pressure over North Korea’s nuclear programme?

Donald Kirk says there is likely to be no end to the debate on what effect, if any, US sanctions or terror labels may have on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. However, hopes are that the renewed pressure will prevent any nasty surprises

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 7:05pm

To sanction or not to sanction North Korea? Pro-sanction people are saying the latest round of US measures against the North may indeed bring enough pressure on Kim Jong-un to agree to talks about giving up his nuclear programme and missiles. The anti-sanctionists say such pressure never works, and may tempt Kim instead to test still more missiles, just to prove what a great and independent leader he is.

We’re never going to hear the end of this debate. Nor will we ever get any definitive answers. If Kim does order another test of a long-range missile capable of carrying a warhead to the US, who will know for sure if sanctions or the absence of them would have made a difference? And, if he doesn’t test another long-range missile, can anyone tell if he put off the idea just because the sanctions were really hurting?

It’s all a guessing game, in which President Donald Trump’s decision to restore North Korea to the US State Department’s list of “sponsors of terror” adds colourful quotes to the argument. If nothing else, it helps Trump score rhetorical or propaganda points. Proponents of a strong US policy think he has done what’s needed to bring Kim to his senses and bow to the demands of just about every leader on Earth.

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After briefly making headlines in the US, however, these gestures do not appear really to have advanced the story. Certainly, a few more Chinese companies may be constrained from doing business with North Korea, and certainly North Korean leaders do not like the “terror” label now any more than they did in 2008, when then US president George W. Bush ordered the removal of the North from the list.

Bush was persuaded by Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, that removing the North from the list would provide Pyongyang with enough face to abide by agreements hammered out by US delegation head Christopher Hill in six-party talks, to give up its nuclear programme on a carefully devised timetable. Hill also got the US Treasury Department to remove constraints that had forced Banco Delta Asia in Macau to freeze millions of dollars in North Korean accounts.

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Anyone could have seen that Hill, looking for a place in history as the diplomat who got the North to give up nuclear ambitions, was more or less out of his mind. What made him imagine that then leader Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, would ever abide by such a deal? Had he not totally ignored the 1991 North-South agreement on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and then violated the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, by engaging in a programme for fabricating warheads with highly enriched uranium, after making a great show of shutting down the North’s plutonium reactor?

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Hill these days is saying North Korean negotiators lied to him, broke their promises and were otherwise quite deceptive. He has been saying he always thought the North would go back on the terror list as soon as it became clear they were breaking their promises.

In the meantime, Banco Delta Asia had gone on serving as a conduit for distributing counterfeit North Korean US$100 bills, while North Korea’s Office 39 deposited profits from sales of weapons, narcotics, even cigarettes, with phoney foreign labels.

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Having said North Korea should have remained on the “terror” list along with Syria, Iran and Sudan, where does Trump go from here? Is Trump, having described his recent Asia trip as “historic”, ready to move beyond histrionics? What if Kim Jong-un does order another long-range missile test?

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It’s often said that Trump is so tough, that he’s capable of some wild act, a “pre-emptive strike” that might precipitate counter-attacks on South Korea’s populated, industrial regions. It’s the fear of such a reaction from the North that inhibits President Moon Jae-in from going along with US hints of a “military option” if diplomacy fails. Many Americans, like Moon, also fear that the North might unleash a devastating response. Nobody wants to take that chance.

It would probably be extremely risky to predict the next act in the great Korean drama. We have so often been surprised. Let’s hope intensified pressure does have a certain effect.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea