North Korea: Beyond Sanctions, Third-Party Negotiations May Be the Way Forward

A man watches a television screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 10, 2017. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

The latest round of UN sanctions are unlikely to bring the North Korean regime to its knees, according to most commentators. Instead, the increased tension between the US and North Korea means that a third-party negotiator may be necessary, according to the former NATO supreme allied commander Wesley Clark.

The UN security council unanimously adopted a resolution Monday that, among other things, caps North Korean oil imports and imposes an embargo on textile trade.

The resolution was praised by several countries as a necessary reaction to North Korea’s latest and most powerful nuclear tests, and was preceded by new threats from North Korean officials that Pyongyang would inflict “the greatest pain and suffering” on the US if it passed.

Yet, it is uncertain how much of an effect the resolution will have on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Even a complete oil embargo might not have been as devastating as depicted by some, according to a Diplomat piece by Paul Musgrave and Yu-Ming Liou. North Korea might simply start processing its coal into oil.

“[T]he fact that the North relies on Chinese imports does not at all imply that such imports are the regime’s lifeline—it might only mean that the regime is making a calculated decision about where to allocate its resources,” they write.

Generally, sanctions may not even be effective against a state that shows such blatant disregard for the well-being of its citizens. The North Korean self-image speaks against the idea that a certain level of deprivation might undermine the Kim regime enough to force a regime change, according to Evan Osnos in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

Osnos speaks to several North Korean officials during a trip to the country, and in the article he points out that North Korea was born amidst a devastating war, and also suffered a severe famine in the mid-nineties.

“They are taught to see themselves as inhabitants of a land shaped by a history of suffering, a sense of hostile encirclement, and a do-or-die insistence on survival,” Osnos writes, and further observes that critics of the idea of trying to choke North Korea into submission say that the country “has perfected its ability to absorb pain” during its decades of isolation.

The North Korean Kim regime’s guiding ideology, developed by its first leader, Kim Il-sung, is called “Juche,” which is sometimes translated as “self-reliance.” Toward the end of the 90s—a disastrous decade for North Korea, with famine, economic crisis, and the loss of its longtime ally, the Soviet Union—an additional, even harsher ideology was adopted: “Songun”, or “military first.” This means that the military’s needs are always prioritized above all other interests—even to the point of ordinary North Koreans starving to death.

Most observers seem to agree that any kind of armed conflict involving North Korea would be disastrous, with unacceptable loss of life in both North and South Korea. This means that barring a sudden regime collapse, negotiations would eventually have to be resumed.

In the current tense climate, however, neither the US nor North Korea may be able to publicly appear as the one opening the door to negotiations, as that would indicate weakness. Some also think that multilateral talks, which have repeatedly failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, would not be effective.

General Wesley Clark instead suggested back-door negotiations through a third party is the way forward.

“What is needed is someone behind the scenes who … while publicly both sides ratchet up the pressure, is working to find a solution that meets both parties’ near-term objectives and provides a road map to the future,” Gen. Clark told CNBC.

Clark suggested that a non-NATO negotiator, such as Sweden or Finland, or an experienced UN negotiator like Lakhdar Brahimi, would be a good choice for such negotiations.