Economic sanctions on misbehaving nations such as North Korea haven’t worked. So, perhaps more of them will.
That’s pretty much where the Trump administration and its Asian allies are right now as they continue a decades-long international effort to halt that recalcitrant rogue regime’s rapidly-advancing nuclear weapons development program.
In recent years, sanctions against countries, individuals and companies have become the go-to political ploy for Western nations needing another press release to appear to show they’re really doing something to rein in another country. President Donald Trump laid more of them on Pyongyang the other day. The toughest ever, he said, while strengthening U.S. military forces in the area.
Trump also finally restored North Korea to the list of nations officially sponsoring terrorism. A list it never should have left in 2008 by the hands of George W. Bush.
Here’s the problem: Asian nations, friend and foe alike, have been around for millennia. They know U.S. administrations - and their policies - come and go in a few years. So they ignore threats, nod politely or simply wait out the tough talk. Back in the mid-’70’s Jimmy Carter was alarmed by growing trade deficits with Japan. He waged word wars against Tokyo trade policies. It didn’t work.
Now, it’s Trump’s turn.
Sanctions are supposed to inflict such economic pain on their targets that the misbehaving nation and its leaders change course to make them stop. President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on Russia and Putin aides in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea and inciting Ukrainian insurrection.
Obama claimed the restrictions hurt Russia’s economy and ruble. True, they did. Trouble is, that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to change Putin’s policies. And that’s totally failed. Same for Obama sanctions on Syria and its dictator Bashar al-Assad, which even included freezing his British-born wife’s credit cards. Assad used poison gas on Syrians at least twice this year.
Now, Trump officials say sanctions are hurting North Korea’s economy. The result? North Korea has launched 10 percent more missile tests this year so far.
But wait! Maybe the sanctions aren’t the problem. Maybe the problem is actually inconsistent Western policy patterns toward the North. Policies that appear to Western eyes to punish and look tough in its media but actually over time tacitly acquiesce to the North’s recalcitrance and incremental drive to acquire a nuclear arsenal.
In 1988, Pyongyang was labeled a state sponsor of terror for downing a South Korean airliner killing 115 and assassinating Seoul diplomats in Burma.
Does 1988 sound familiar? Twenty-nine years ago last week a Libyan bomb downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 243. Longtime strongman Muammar Gadaffi later paid compensation to families and, in return for Western promises of forgiveness, also relinquished his flourishing nuclear weapons program.
Gadaffi’s reward? Obama joined European forces to overthrow the Libyan leader in October 2011. A mob tore him apart.
Nine weeks later, another coincidence. Kim Jung-un became North Korea’s dictator. Think maybe he noticed Western duplicity?
Under a succession of ruthless Kims since the early ’90’s the impoverished North agreed to rein in its weapons programs in return for economic goodies like foods and a winter’s-worth of heating oil.
Under a succession of hopeful and painfully patient U.S. presidents unwilling to display a credible threat of force, the North’s program has continued to progress to such a point that Washington intelligence officials now estimate Kim’s nuclear missiles could reach the U.S. mainland as early as next year.
Inevitably, the Communist regime was caught serial cheating, lured back to the table with further concessions, then renewed its cheating. It’s exported missiles and rockets to Iran. Kim’s regime has kidnapped Japanese, abducted Americans and bombarded South Korean islands and boats.
In February using a banned nerve agent, Kim agents in Malaysia assassinated his exiled elder brother, rumored as a possible puppet replacement if the current Kim was ousted.
In 2007, the North helped Syria build a nuclear reactor for weapons development. The U.S. declined to do anything. Israel bombed it into rubble.
Just nine months later President Bush erased the North off the terror list, vainly hoping once more to encourage change. “If North Korea continues to make the right choices,” Bush said, “it can repair its relationship with the international community.” Continues?
While appealing to China for stricter sanctions help, Trump has said he will not allow this country to become a hostage to Kim’s nuclear threats. The dictatorship, he said, must stop supporting international terrorism and “end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development.”
Months away from the North’s calculated capability to hit the U.S. mainland, three American carrier strike groups, including nuclear subs, now cruise the Western Pacific with allies, a rare occurrence certainly representing a credible force.
While saying he much prefers a diplomatic solution, the American commander-in-chief has stressed an end to a quarter-century’s worth of ineffective “strategic patience,” meaning U.S. administrations have finally run out of street to kick the North Korean can down.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.