With sanctions now sinking their teeth into North Korea, the United States and its allies will discuss a naval blockade that could end North Korean smuggling, bringing the maximum pressure campaign towards its endgame.
The United Nations Security Council passed a new round of tougher sanctions just before Christmas, ratcheting down permitted North Korean trade as reports emerge that the regime can’t feed its soldiers.
And with reports that the Chinese regime is enforcing that new level of sanctions enough to matter, the Trump administration is showing increasing confidence in its push towards a diplomatic option.
The White House issued a statement Jan. 12. saying the Trump administration was “pleased that China is sharply reducing its trade with North Korea.
“This action supports the United States-led global effort to apply maximum pressure until the North Korean regime ends its illicit programs, changes its behavior, and moves toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The State Department is hoping to cement those gains with other measures at an upcoming meeting in Vancouver, according to Brian Hook, Director of Policy Planning for the Secretary.
Foreign ministers from the United States, Canada, South Korea, and several of the countries that fought North Korea in the Korean War will gather in Vancouver on Jan. 16.
According to Hook, the meeting aims to apply more pressure to North Korea while keeping diplomatic options “open and viable.”
“They are feeling the strain. And we believe that this pressure campaign remains the best avenue to force change in Kim Jong Un’s behavior and to get him to the negotiating table for meaningful discussions,” said Hook during a Jan. 11 press briefing.
With tougher sanctions now in place, the State Department is looking for ways to make sure North Korea is not circumventing punishing limits on imports and 90 percent of its publicly reported exports.
A naval blockade would mark a watershed moment. Talk of a naval blockade comes as the United States seriously considers a so-called bloody nose attack, a limited strike on North Korea meant to punish it for any further provocations without escalating to full out war.
“We certainly have put the credible military threat on the table—but our definite preference is for a negotiated solution,” said Hook.
That means cracking down on anyone not complying with the current sanctions.
“We need to be doing more to deal with vessels that are engaging in prohibited activities under UN Security Council resolutions,” said Hook.
One way to do that is to punish individual vessels engaged in smuggling by getting them banned from entering other ports, putting them out of business.
“We need to drive up the consequences for any vessels that are engaging in this kind of activity,” he said.
But discussion of a naval blockade could be part of what is unsettling the Chinese regime, which objects to the Vancouver talks.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters in Beijing the Vancouver meeting would undermine peace efforts.
“It will only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue,” spokesman Lu Kang was quoted as telling reporters in Beijing on Wednesday according to CBC.
China and Russia were not invited to the meeting. Despite being important elements to any successful blockade, given both countries share borders with North Korea. But they are also the North Korean regime’s only ideological backers, supporting the regime in principle despite its nuclear threats. They were also responsible for creating North Korea and giving it the backing it needed to launch the Korean War.
China and Russia have given North Korea a lifeline, two friends on the UN Security Council ready to tame sanctions to a tolerable level. But December’s new sanctions, and tougher caps on oil imports, have coincided with North Korea finding renewed interest in diplomatic options.
Starting with Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, the regime has made a pivot away from belligerent provocations towards diplomacy, calling for a bilateral solution to the current crisis by working with South Korea.
To that end, North Korea has initiated talks to negotiate its entry into the upcoming Olympic Games in South Korea.
But while the United States and other nations have welcomed those talks, North Korea continues to proclaim its firm commitment to its nuclear weapons program.
With no change on this key point, the State Department is calling for deeper financial controls to cut off any illicit money flowing to or from the regime, said Hook.
“We will impose secondary sanctions when we need to, and that’s something which the Chinese understand very clearly from our conversations,” said Hook.
Those sanctions could target additional Chinese banks and businesses, key partners of the North Korean regime.