(NEW YORK) — President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday aiming to tighten an economic noose around North Korea, days after he threatened to “totally destroy” the country if forced to defend the United States or its allies.
The new order enables the U.S. to sanction individual companies and institutions that finance trade with North Korea. It adds to U.S.-led international pressure against Kim Jong Un’s expanded missile and nuclear testing program that has stoked fears of nuclear war and dominated the president’s debut at this week’s U.N. General Assembly.
The announcement came as Trump met in New York with leaders from close U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, the nations most imperiled by North Korea’s threats.
Trump said the order would also disrupt other trade avenues for North Korea in an effort to halt its nuclear weapons program. The president said “tolerance for this disgraceful practice must end now.”
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“When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” By these words in a Sept. 11, 1941, fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt authorized US warships to fire first against Nazi naval vessels, which he called “the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.”
Roosevelt’s order applied whenever German or Italian ships entered “waters of self-defense” necessary to protect the US, including those surrounding US outposts on Greenland and Iceland.
Uttered 60 years to the day before 9/11, and less than three months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt’s words still resonate. North Korea’s sixth nuclear test last weekend, along with its significantly increased ballistic-missile testing, establishes that Pyongyang is perilously close to being able to hit targets across the continental United States with nuclear warheads, perhaps thermonuclear ones.
The Nazi threat to US shipping, both normal commercial traffic and war supplies destined for Great Britain, was undeniably significant, and the Axis powers’ broader totalitarian threat was existential. Nonetheless, right up to Dec. 7, 1941, many American leaders urged caution to avoid provoking the Axis and thereby risking broader conflict. Pearl Harbor followed.
In his chat, Roosevelt observed that others had “refused to look the Nazi danger squarely in the eye until it actually had them by the throat.” We shouldn’t commit that mistake today. North Korea’s behavior, and its lasting desire to conquer the South, have created the present crisis.
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According to the initial narrative of the Khomeinist ideology, the “perfect state” which Muslims should aspire to was the brief period during which Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb exercised the Caliphate against a background of revolts and civil war. However, it now seems that Khomeinist zealots have found another “ideal model” outside the world of Islam.
That model is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, which Khomeinists present as living paragon of heroic resistance against the American “Great Satan.” The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently ran editorials praising North Korea’s “brave defiance of Arrogance” by testing long-range missiles in the face of “cowardly threats” by the United States. In one editorial last month, the paper invited those who urge dialogue with the US to learn from North Korea’s “success in humiliating the Great Satan.”
The editorial provoked some critical responses from the “reformist” wing of the ruling clique with President Hassan Rouhani’s unofficial spokesman expressing regret that Iran was being asked to downgrade to the level of “a pariah in a remote corner of Asia.”
Nevertheless, last month North Korea’s nominal “president” Kim Yong Nam whose official title is Chairman of the People’s Assembly was given red carpet treatment during a 10-day visit to Tehran at the head a 30-man military and political delegation. He was granted a rare two-hours long audience with Khamenei. During his stay, he inaugurated North Korea’s new embassy which includes an expanded military cooperation section.
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North Korea test-launched on Friday its first ballistic missile potentially capable of hitting America’s East Coast. It thereby proved the failure of 25 years of U.S. nonproliferation policy. A single-minded rogue state can pocket diplomatic concessions and withstand sustained economic sanctions to build deliverable nuclear weapons. It is past time for Washington to bury this ineffective “carrots and sticks” approach.
America’s policy makers, especially those who still support the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, should take careful note. If Tehran’s long collusion with Pyongyang on ballistic missiles is even partly mirrored in the nuclear field, the Iranian threat is nearly as imminent as North Korea’s. Whatever the extent of their collaboration thus far, Iran could undoubtedly use its now-unfrozen assets and cash from oil-investment deals to buy nuclear hardware from North Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations.
One lesson from Pyongyang’s steady nuclear ascent is to avoid making the same mistake with other proliferators, who are carefully studying its successes. Statecraft should mean grasping the implications of incipient threats and resolving them before they become manifest. With North Korea and Iran, the U.S. has effectively done the opposite. Proliferators happily exploit America’s weakness and its short attention span. They exploit negotiations to gain the most precious asset: time to resolve the complex scientific and technological hurdles to making deliverable nuclear weapons.
Now that North Korea possesses them, the U.S. has few realistic options. More talks and sanctions will fail as they have for 25 years. I have argued previously that the only durable diplomatic solution is to persuade China that reunifying the two Koreas is in its national interest as well as America’s, thus ending the nuclear threat by ending the bizarre North Korean regime. Although the negotiations would be arduous and should have commenced years ago, American determination could still yield results.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Will new economic sanctions against North Korea convince it to give up its nuclear and missile capabilities? No, they won’t. The US and its allies must evaluate whether the goals of new sanctions are feasible, how effective they can be, and whether they will be fully implemented. Without analyzing these parameters, new sanctions will be just more diplomatic kabuki that fails to change North Korean policy.
Students of international relations and international political economy study the effectiveness of economic sanctions on state policies. They learn how economic sanctions can force regimes to change policy, as occurred in South Africa, Libya, and even Iran in the case of the nuclear agreement.
The logic of economic sanctions is very simple. The high cost of sanctions on a state will convince its regime to change policy, as the price tag of maintaining its policy is too high. In some cases, the cost of sanctions might be increased to convince a regime to hasten a change in policy.
While in the South African, Libyan, and Iranian cases, sanctions did lead to a decline in the states’ GDPs and subsequent policy changes, in the North Korean case, Pyongyang has not changed its nuclear and missile policies. According to new data, the North Korean economy has in fact developed over the past few months despite international economic sanctions.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The North Korean imbroglio has been affecting Sino-American relations for months. Washington and Beijing agree on the urgency of mitigating risks stemming from the unpredictable behavior of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but differ on methods to achieve that objective. President Trump has abandoned the “strategic patience” ethos of the Obama era and criticizes Beijing for not putting greater pressure on Pyongyang. For its part, Beijing is concerned about instability on the Korean Peninsula as the US military presence expands and the “regime change” prescription gains ground.
The US, an established political and economic superpower, and China, an economic colossus and rising political power, are attempting to find a modus vivendi that will define international relations. Optimistic scholars believe their differences will be solved peacefully in the interest of global stability, but pessimistic analysts express the view that their rivalry and contradicting interests will ultimately involve armed forces.
At the time of this writing, the new US administration and the Chinese leadership have been engaged in preliminary discussions on a variety of topics (diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and cultural issues) following the agreement reached between Presidents Trump and Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017.
It is the North Korean imbroglio, however, that is dominating the agenda of Sino-American negotiations.
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“The growth in the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable.” This is the most famous line of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War”. Will a future historian one day write that the growth in the power of China, and the alarm which this inspired in America, made war equally inevitable?
Since the election of Donald Trump, the probability of a Sino-American conflict has soared. Last year Trump ran an aggressively anti-Chinese election campaign, repeatedly threatening to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. Trade is only one of several bones of contention. The United States remains committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China’s island-building program is designed to make that sea Chinese in fact as well as name. Trump is less committed than any US president since Richard Nixon to the “One China” policy.
But the biggest flashpoint is without question North Korea — which brings me back to Thucydides and Graham Allison’s “Destined for War,” this summer’s must-read book in both Washington and Beijing.
Small powers can cause big trouble. The initial clash in the Peloponnesian War was in fact between Athens and Corinth; war came when the Corinthians appealed to the Spartans for help. Think of the role Serbia played in the First World War, or Cuba in the Cold War. Today’s catalyst for conflict is North Korea, which last week successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile — a weapon with the capacity to hit Alaska. Experts such as my Stanford colleague Sig Hecker believe the North Koreans are just five or so years away from being able to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the nose of such a missile.
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