For the past quarter century, the United States and South Korea have tried to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations. Beginning in the early 1990s, Washington attempted to bargain with Pyongyang, while Seoul pursued a strategy of economic engagement, effectively subsidizing Pyongyang with aid and investment even as it continued to develop nuclear weapons. Then, after North Korea tested an atomic bomb in 2006, the United States pressed the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea. Yet at the urging of South Korea and for fear of angering China, the United States failed to use its full diplomatic and financial power to enforce those sanctions. All along, the goal has been to induce North Korea to open up to the outside world and roll back its nuclear and missile programs.
This combination of sanctions and subsidies has failed. North Korea already possesses the ability to hit Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons and will soon have the ability to hit the continental United States with one. Despite what some in Washington and Seoul want to believe, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is no reformer. He has staked his legitimacy on perfecting the nuclear arsenal his father and grandfather bought at the cost of billions of dollars and millions of lives. If he will disarm at all, he will do so only under duress so extreme that it threatens the survival of his regime.
To protect the United States and its allies from the North Korean threat and prevent further nuclear proliferation, the Trump administration must end the incoherent policy of simultaneously sanctioning and subsidizing Pyongyang. Instead, it should crack down on the foreign financial dealings of North Korean officials and companies and the foreign states that help them. The world is facing its greatest nuclear emergency since the Cuban missile crisis. It’s past time for the United States to act decisively.
For decades, North Korea has represented a second-tier crisis for the United States—
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