Only Congress Can Solve the North Korea Problem

May 3, 2017

By EDWARD FISHMAN New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/opinion/only-congress-can-solve-the-north-korea-problem.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

While there is no love lost between Democrats and Republicans these days, they do seem to agree on one thing: North Korea’s rapidly accelerating nuclear program poses a grave threat to the United States. And yet, despite bipartisan unity and President Trump’s frequent saber-rattling, one element of our North Korea policy remains puzzling: Why aren’t our sanctions against the country stronger?

North Korea’s nuclear program is much more advanced than Iran’s ever was, but the sanctions the United States has imposed on North Korea are nowhere near as harsh as those on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal. This is especially troubling since North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons and is developing systems that would enable them to hit the United States.

On Friday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson led a special session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss strengthening sanctions against North Korea. It’s a good impulse, but the center of the action on North Korea sanctions should not be the United Nations — or even the White House. If the Iran experience taught us anything about imposing crushing sanctions, it is that congressional action is critical.

For the United States to hit North Korea with the full brunt of our sanctions arsenal, Congress must act swiftly and aggressively using our most potent economic weapon: secondary sanctions. These are not aimed directly at the target country but rather at third parties conducting business with that country (for example, Chinese banks facilitating North Korean payments).

Secondary sanctions can be diplomatically problematic because they can cause tensions with otherwise friendly countries. Unsurprisingly, when the executive branch has a choice, it often prefers not to impose them.

But it is not just the White House that has the power apply secondary sanctions. Congress can pass laws that force the Treasury Department to impose them. For years before the Iran nuclear deal, Congress routinely passed bills that mandated secondary sanctions. These laws eventually moved the Obama administration to punish companies in China, Germany and Italy that were doing business with Iran.

Moreover, in legislation passed in 2011, Congress compelled the Obama administration to threaten sanctions against countries that refused to reduce their imports of Iranian oil. The law worked as intended, resulting in a substantial decrease in Iran’s oil sales — to 1.1 million barrels per day in 2013 from 2.5 million barrels per day in 2012. Even China significantly cut back its Iranian oil purchases. Shortly after the law began to bite, Iran was ready to enter serious negotiations over its nuclear program.

So far, Congress has refrained from mandating broad secondary sanctions against North Korea’s trading partners. This inaction is explained by a lack of congressional focus on North Korea policy, the absence of a vocal domestic constituency pushing for tougher measures and concerns about angering China. But Congress should now end its restraint and pass a North Korea sanctions law that encompasses restrictions similar to those that were imposed on Iran.

For starters, Congress should mandate sanctions against any bank or company involved in purchases of North Korean minerals, coal, textiles or other goods that earn Pyongyang hard currency. North Korea continues to make billions of dollars annually from its exports, which go primarily to China but also to India, Pakistan and other countries. The funds collected from these exports prop up the Kim regime and finance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As it did with Iran in 2011, Congress should allow temporary waivers for countries that significantly reduce their imports from North Korea. This will give China and others a reasonable period — perhaps three or six months — to halt business with North Korea.

Other prime targets for secondary sanctions include financial institutions that provide services to North Korean banks, shipping lines that call at North Korean ports and insurers that underwrite cargoes to and from North Korea. The only exceptions should be for trade in humanitarian goods like food and medicine. Such sanctions would present businesses around the world with a clear choice: Cut ties with North Korean counterparts or suffer the costs of American sanctions.

The White House may bristle at the idea of Congress driving policy on North Korea, but it should be thankful for legislative action. While Congress plays the “bad cop,” President Trump will benefit from greatly enhanced negotiating leverage. And although such an approach would garner international criticism, particularly from Beijing, businesses in China and elsewhere would most likely fall into line.

That’s because the alternative is not successfully defying the United States — access to the American financial system is too valuable to risk losing it — but rather facing sanctions and possibly bankruptcy. Nevertheless, to prevent diplomatic blowback, the Trump administration should work to amass the type of good will the Obama administration earned on Iran, traveling around the globe to secure as much buy-in as possible.

There is no magic bullet for Pyongyang’s nuclear belligerence. A military strike against North Korea’s program could lead to devastating retaliation, and even the harshest sanctions may not change Kim Jong-un’s calculus. But as North Korea moves closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the United States, we would be remiss not to see if the full weight of our sanctions might make Pyongyang reverse course. To do otherwise would be foreign-policy malpractice.

Edward Fishman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, was a member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff during the Obama administration.

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 An image released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) showing ballistic missiles being displayed in Pyongyang last month. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An image released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) showing ballistic missiles being displayed in Pyongyang last month. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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