Pressuring North Korea

The response was typical Trumpism—with a soupçon of Mean Girls. Just as he had called jihadists “losers” a few weeks prior, the president reacted to North Korea’s test launch of a midrange ballistic missile on July 3 with a gibe that cut to the quick. “Does [Kim Jong-un] have anything better to do with his life?” he mused on Twitter.

President Trump has a point. Even though North Korea’s economy has shown a slight pulse in recent years—thanks to the growth of unofficial markets and various cronyist enterprises for well-connected elites, like mining operations—the country remains in dire straits. Outside of Pyongyang, food shortages remain a serious problem. Kim quite literally does have something better to do: improve the lives of his people, rather than divert massive sums towards the military and his nuclear and missile programs.

On the other hand, the Kims have been quite canny. Some time ago, they made the strategic decision that the only way to ensure the survival of their regime was to become a bona fide nuclear state, capable of wreaking mass devastation on South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Pyongyang has already checked the first two off its list; now, with the launch of a missile that can apparently hit Alaska, it appears tantalizingly close to achieving its ultimate—and horrifying—aim. Experts suggest that in just a year or two, North Korea will be able to launch a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

Of course, the North Koreans have had help in the form of nearly a quarter-century of feckless American policy. The less said about the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” the better. That deal, struck between the Clinton administration and the North Koreans, was supposed to stop the regime’s nuclear program in its tracks. What it actually did was buy time for the Kims to continue down their primrose path—and illustrate the folly of pursuing “diplomacy” as an end unto itself.

American politicians often bemoan outsourcing to China. Yet the last three presidential administrations have largely done just that when it comes to North Korea policy. That’s not inherently idiotic: China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner by an order of magnitude, does have significant leverage over the small despotic state on its northeastern border. China also supplies North Korea with the vast majority of its oil and gas. (There is only a tiny amount of fossil fuels on the Korean peninsula.) But what presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama failed to recognize is that we have leverage over China. Either that, or they were too timid to use it.

President Trump, on the other hand, seems willing to finally press Beijing. Since the disturbing but thankfully brief bromance that was struck up between Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping after their April meeting in Palm Beach, the Trump administration has decided to take some much-needed action. It cut the Bank of Dandong out of the U.S. financial system, for example, after accusing the lender of facilitating transactions for companies involved in North Korea’s weapons programs. This is a good start. The Trump administration has also declared that China has a major problem when it comes to human trafficking. (Indeed, the trafficking of North Korean refugees in China’s northeast is a global scandal.) And even some of the matters that appear not altogether related to North Korea—Trump’s threatened action on Chinese steel exports, for example—can be viewed as the president using American leverage to press China to take action on North Korea.

There’s more to be done, of course. Given the savage murder of college student Otto Warmbier, whose only crime was to be young and naïve enough to visit North Korea, it’s absurd that the Trump administration has not yet implemented a travel ban to the country. (The State Department has allowed that it’s considering such a move.) Tourism to the totalitarian state remains a source of much-needed foreign lucre for the regime. And the president would do well to stay out of his own way, by, for instance, no longer needlessly insulting South Korea, a vital ally in the struggle against the belligerent neighbor to its north.

President Obama gussied up his do-nothing North Korea policy by calling it “strategic patience.” With North Korea distressingly close to being able to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, the time for patience is over. President Trump should embrace a new posture towards China and North Korea: Call it “strategic impatience.”

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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