U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun has urged North Korea to come to the negotiating table, saying: “We are here, let’s get this done.” His comments in Seoul come days after North Korea conducted missile tests at a satellite launch site, in addition to setting an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to come up with a new denuclearisation deal that would involve significant sanctions relief. It said America could expect a “Christmas gift” if it did not comply. It seems, however, that nothing will get done since Washington has given Pyongyang as much leeway on the international sphere without getting anything in return.
The Trump administration has recently refused to support a move by members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea’s rampant human rights abuses, effectively blocking the meeting for the second year in a row. The action appeared aimed at muting international criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record in the hope of preserving a tenuous diplomatic opening between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the authoritarian leader of North Korea. Tensions between both leaders have broken out into the open in recent days.
Last week North Korea called President Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” after the American president warned that Kim Jong-un could lose “everything” if he resumed military provocations like nuclear or long-range missile tests before the 2020 elections in the United States.
A proposed meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday had been intended to put a spotlight on North Korea on Human Rights Day, which is held every December 10 to mark the day in 1948 when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eight of the council’s fifteen members had signed a letter to schedule the meeting but needed a ninth member—the minimum required. This after horrendous accounts of defected North Koreans on how they were treated, at times having to eat dragonflies from dying of hunger.
As reported but the Wall Street Journal, Pyongyang has kept its economy afloat by sidestepping sanctions, using its local resources more efficiently and finding alternative ways to generate foreign cash. In an effort to keep pressure on the U.S., North Korea has warned of making a perilous shift to its approach next year, when President Trump will be facing re-election. Last Friday Pyongyang conducted a second significant test in a week at a satellite-launch facility, behavior that military experts believe could portend a long-range weapon launch.
A senior North Korean official warned in state media recently that the Trump administration’s next move will determine “what Christmas gift it will select.” The country’s U.N. ambassador said denuclearization was off the negotiating table earlier this month. “I don’t think North Korea is under any pressure. They’re not in a rush for a deal,” said Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who has been involved in prior negotiations with North Korea. “I’ve never seen these guys panic.”
North Korea has now given the U.S. until the end of the year to bring a more appealing offer. In an April policy speech, Kim warned that the U.S. would face the prospect of a “gloomy and very dangerous” outcome if the Trump administration did not change its negotiating stance. He has even his country’s brinkmanship this month. Last Friday’s test was Pyongyang’s second in a week at its Sohae facility, a site where it has previously launched satellites into orbit. Military experts are still working to determine what was tested, but they said another test was likely of a rocket engine that could be used for a long-range weapon.
Denuclearization talks have not made discernible progress after February’s summit between Trump and Kim ended without a deal. The two leaders met again in June at Korea’s demilitarized zone, promising to revive negotiations. But since then, the U.S. and North Korea have convened just once in October, when Pyongyang broke off talks and said it wouldn’t continue them unless Washington makes a significant concession.
Pyongyang, which has unleashed more than a dozen weapons tests this year, has subsequently accused Washington of stalling. The U.S. has said it is prepared to be flexible in disarmament talks if the North avoids provocations and takes concrete steps toward a deal.
What went wrong?
First, when Washington makes impossible demands of another state, such as demanding the North Koreans fully denuclearize—something Kim will never do since his nuclear program is his “Ace up his sleeve”—it is useless to scold them for their unpleasant rhetoric and lack of cooperation. The hostile rhetoric and lack of cooperation are products of the unreasonable demands.
The Trump administration has wasted the entire year, and it has refused to take North Korea’s end-of-year deadline seriously. Between the foolish photo-op summits that accomplished nothing and the hard-line demands that the administration keeps making there was never much of a chance for constructive diplomacy.
Second, there is the point of not holding Pyongyang responsible for its human rights violations. In 2014, after a United Nations commission released a report on widespread rights violations in North Korea, the Americans supported an annual meeting on the council devoted to the subject. But last year, the U.S. recanted its support for such a meeting as President Trump made diplomatic overtures to Kim, according to officials and diplomats, and no meeting was held. President Trump’s critics say the action is consistent with what they regard as a transactional approach to foreign policy that diminishes concern for human rights. The president has embraced authoritarian leaders who oversee widespread abuses, such as China’s Xi Jipng and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan in their countries and rarely talks about rights violations. Trump, for example, has blocked sanctions on Chinese officials for running internment camps holding at least one million Muslims, for example, to try to reach a trade deal with China.
“North Korea and other abusive governments that the United States is going easy on are undoubtedly elated that the days of U.S. criticism of their human rights records appear to be over for the time being,” said Louis Charbonneau, United Nations officer at Human Rights Watch.
What can the U.S. Do?
The U.S. can ban sanction-busting commercial and financial entities from future dollar-denominated transactions. For many globalized entities, such “secondary sanctions” would amount to a financial death blow. To restore credibility to the sanctions campaign, the U.S. will probably have to make examples of some important Chinese and Russian companies.
It is time for Trump to stop his pretentious “love affair” with Kim and treat Pyongyang like the criminal enterprise it is—South Korea should also do the same. Trump saying that he and Kim “fell in love” is as bad as “falling in love” with Adolf Hitler. No other regime games its national sovereignty and converts its diplomatic immunity into criminal revenue like North Korea. Cybercrime, drug running, currency counterfeiting, human trafficking, nuclear proliferation—the gangster state in North Korea profits from all of these and more.
Trump needs a sustained diplomatic and law-enforcement initiative to name, shame and blacklist malefactors. The North’s money trails lead through familiar terror bazaars in the Middle East, and rolling these back would be a twofer. Let us also remember the illicit activities North Korean embassies routinely run in countries with which the U.S. has friendly relations—including ivory and rhino-horn smuggling by its diplomats in various African capitals.
Political economist Nicholas Eberstadt suggests that America also needs to prepare for the next North Korean food crisis. The first external sign that economic pressure is crippling the North Korean economy will likely be a spiraling of cereal prices and a collapse of the exchange rate of the North Korean won in domestic markets. The second could be a hunger crisis. Pyongyang will have no compunction about starving hostages from disfavored classes to loosen the sanctions noose. The U.S. and its allies must be prepared to offer “intrusive aid”—a program designed and administered by impartial outsiders, not North Korean apparatchiks—to feed the needy directly. This is the path to breaking the country’s war economy.
Yet it all comes down to human rights. If both sides discuss nuclear disarmament, then Trump has to call a spade-for-spade and hold Kim’s regime accountable for the human beings who are being physically and psychologically tortured and sexually exploited under him.
My own message to President Trump would be to do what President Ronald Reagan did to bring down the former Soviet Union. He never praised the “evil empire” nor did he engage in useless diplomatic talks or photo-ops. Instead, he took the Soviets head on by forcing them to relent on their human rights abuses before he sat down to discuss reducing nuclear armaments own both sides with Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.