The UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 2321 condemning North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, conducted on September 9, 2016. The resolution builds on Resolution 2270 passed by the UNSC only nine months earlier in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test by imposing even tougher restrictions on North Korean maritime and financial activities, misuse of diplomatic channels for commercial purposes, and restrictions on North Korean trade. On paper, UNSC 2321 essentially calls upon member states to place North Korea under economic quarantine unless it reverses course on nuclear development.
Most notably, the resolution imposes a numerical and volume cap of $400 million or 7.5 million tons/year of coal exports to China from 2017. According to Marcus Noland, this represents a $650 million reduction in coal exports compared to 2016 or an over 20 percent reduction in the value of North Korean merchandise goods exports of approximately $2.7 billion. An additional ban on North Korean exports of copper, nickel, silver, and zinc should cost the North Koreans an additional $100 million.
Following the passage of each UNSC resolution imposing even tougher sanctions on North Korea, a pattern has emerged. First, there is the feeling with the release of each UNSC resolution that China has outperformed expectations by agreeing to tougher sanctions than expected. Then, there is the realization that China has left sufficient loopholes and wiggle room to ensure that North Korea pays a price for its nuclear weapons development, but not so large a price that North Korea’s stability is endangered. Finally, just when it becomes clear that China is easing off on the pressure, the cycle repeats itself, and North Korea conducts yet another nuclear or missile test.
North Korea’s provocation cycle depends on China’s fundamental interest in peninsular stability to ensure that the umbilical cord from China through which Pyongyang receives essential “livelihood” support is never irreparably cut. Moreover, if early signs of distress were to develop in Pyongyang, China’s choke points to North Korea would quickly become lifelines once again.
A similar repeating cycle of debate goes on in U.S. debates regarding the role of cooperation with China in policy toward North Korea. President-elect Donald Trump suggests he may repeat this cycle by suggesting that the United States should leave the North Korea problem to China.
But to move toward a solution on North Korea, the Trump administration will have to find a way to break the cycle of dependency on China. Cooperation with China is necessary to exert maximum pressure on North Korea, but cooperation with China by itself may never be sufficient to present Kim Jong Un with an existential choice between survival and denuclearization. Indeed, Kim Jong Un has already rejected the premise that there could be such a choice by adopting byungjin (simultaneous nuclear and economic development), as the fundamental strategic line of the regime and as a source of legitimation for his rule. This leaves U.S. policymakers straining to maximize cooperation with China while simultaneously seeking the missing ingredient independent of cooperation with China that can finally fill the gap.