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Shrugging Off Sanctions

Prepared by: Esther Pan, and Michael Moran
Updated: July 18, 2006


The unanimous imposition of UN Security Council sanctions on missile supplies to North Korea (VOA) signals international disgust at its recent missile tests. The North's reaction to the UN sanctions—a vow to continue to build up its missile program—amounts to little more than a shrug, notes former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in a CNN commentary. But he also argues the United States has not been aggressive enough in pursuing diplomatic openings. "President Bush should also reaffirm his pledge that if North Korea forgoes its pursuit of nuclear weaponry, the United States will join with its allies and provide North Korea a robust economic package."

Some nations, however, do have economic influence on Pyongyang. South Korea, determined not to overreact to any provocation, maintains a policy of economic cooperation (Seoul Times). Japan, too, developed fairly robust ties with the North during the 1990s, and potentially represents a major source of investment if North Korea ever hopes to modernize its economy. Yet, with missiles flying, Japan now is considering economic sanctions (BBC), not to mention new military spending to counter the missile threat.

Then there is China, which sees North Korea as an important buffer between it and South Korea—as well as the source of a massively destabilizing flood of refugees if the regime collapses. To prevent that eventuality, Beijing has been propping up the Kim regime to the tune of $2 billion in annual aid, trade, and investment (CSMonitor). North Korea is also increasingly looking to China as an authoritarian state that has successfully instituted economic reforms while retaining political control. Pyongyang has even attempted some economic reforms in the Chinese model, as explained in this Backgrounder.

Many Western observers think China's influence over North Korea is strong enough to rein in Kim's militaristic tendencies. Niall Ferguson writes in the Los Angeles Times that China can choose to pull the plug on the Kim regime whenever it wants. But North Korea is reacting to external pressure with defiance and threatening another round of missile tests (LAT).

There are signs China may be losing patience with Kim. The Christian Science Monitor says in this editorial that China's support of Kim may jeopardize some of its main strategic interests by inviting a greater U.S. or Japanese military presence in the region. The blog China Matters says Kim is blackmailing Beijing, using the threat of regional instability (and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan) to extort more aid from China. This Power and Interest News Report says China is interested only in managing, not resolving, the North Korean nuclear crisis. China's changing relationship with North Korea is explored in this new Backgrounder.

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