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The U.N. Sanctions Game With North Korea: Time to Play the Oil Cutoff Card



With his multiple nuclear and missile tests, Kim Jong-un has accelerated North Korea’s program to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead that could strike the United States.  The program also is strengthening the existing capability to attack Japan and South Korea with nuclear warheads produced since at least 2012 for the intermediate range Nodong missile.


It is a realistic prospect that, by 2018-2020, North Korea will have a comprehensive arsenal of nuclear warheads mounted on long-range and intermediate-range missiles—and the status of a full-fledged nuclear weapons power.


The Failure of Sanctions

Since 2006, the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean response to successive North Korean tests has been to go to the United Nations Security Council and negotiate the imposition of multiple sanctions on Pyongyang.  After ten years, there can be no doubt that these sanctions have been ineffective.  North Korea continues to advance its nuclear  missile program.  The livelihoods and functions of the communist elite and military leadership appear undamaged.


This process has become a pretense.  Security Council members amend, modify, and add items, knowing that the new versions will have no more effect on North Korea than previous versions.  Analysts, including U.N. experts, agree that China has not enforced most of the sanctions to which it agreed.



A careful read reveals limits and qualifications to key sanctions, opportunities for North Korean concealment of prohibited exports and imports, and no restrictions on third-country banks that do business with North Korea.  North Korean trading companies support the nuclear missile program through operations in China and other countries.  North Korean operatives in China have infiltrated numerous Chinese banks that move money to North Korea.  U.N. sanctions have done nothing to prevent North Korea’s financially lucrative nuclear and missile collaboration with Iran.


The dilemma for the United States, Japan, and South Korea is that, as North Korea succeeds in advancing its nuclear missile program, sanctions would have to inflict increasing amounts of pain on North Korea in order to compel Kim Jong-un to consider changing his present course.  The current sanctions have not inflicted that kind of pain.  However, there is a sanction that has not been attempted: a cutoff of foreign oil shipments to North Korea.  An oil cutoff could inflict enough pain that the regime might consider offering concessions to the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other affected countries.


A cutoff of oil imports would cause an acute energy crisis in North Korea within six months.  As gasoline supplies dwindled, the transportation system would become paralyzed.  Electricity generating plants fueled by oil would reduce output, even for Pyongyang.  Especially important, the military’s supplies of oil, gasoline, and aviation fuel would dry up.


A Strategy To Deal With China

A strategy would begin by the United States introducing a resolution in the U.N. Security Council mandating that U.N. member states cease providing oil to North Korea and not assist other states that seek to provide oil to North Korea.  China supplies North Korea with an estimated 90 percent of its oil.  The U.S.proposed resolution would force the Chinese Government to make a fundamental choice regarding sanctions on North Korea.  Many experts believe that China would veto a U.S. resolution.


However, U.S. strategy could employ explanations and incentives that would make a Chinese decision to veto more difficult:



---Deal with China’s reputed fear of a North Korean collapse by asserting to the Chinese that North Korean leaders would make a rational decision to start making concessions rather than allow oil shortages to generate an internal crisis.  Cease talking about “regime change.”


---Offer the Chinese acceptance of China’s long-standing proposal to resume Six Party Talks.  Tell the Chinese that if China schedules a six party meeting in Beijing, the United States will attend.


---Offer China a one year suspension of deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea in order to give an oil cutoff an opportunity to produce North Korean concessions in serious negotiations.


In summary, offer China a justifiable bargain to satisfy its opposition to the THAAD system and its advocacy of renewed Six Party Talks.  The United States would implement these incentives if China did not veto the resolution and allowed the United States to verify that China had ended oil shipments to North Korea.


The United States also should publicize its resolution and incentives offered to China.  This publicity should include information on China’s oil subsidies to North Korea.  A main target of this publicity should be the Chinese public, which has become increasingly critical of North Korea.  This would produce a robust debate in China on the internet and within the Chinese Government, sparked by voices urging tougher measures against North Korea.



Importantly, this strategy must involve similar proposals and attention to Russia.  Do not ignore Putin on North Korea.


China still might veto the resolution.  In that event, the United States should voice a three part warning to China: (1) that when North Korea commits the next nuclear or missile provocation, the United States will place the resolution before the Security Council again; (2) if China vetoes it a second time, the United States will impose sanctions on Chinese banks and enterprises known to do illegitimate business with North Korea; and (3) the United States will not oppose any decision by Japan to develop long-range strike weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear attack threat to Japan, a threat which Kim Jong-un has proclaimed.


Japan's Crucial Role In An Oil Cutoff Strategy

It seems to me that Japan would occupy a crucial role in an oil cutoff strategy.  Ironically, this may have to begin with Japan’s dealings with the U.S. Government.  The Japanese Government may need to be an initial advocate of an oil cutoff resolution in discussions with timid U.S. officials, who have avoided the oil cutoff policy option during the Bush and Obama administrations.  The timidity of these officials, especially State Department officials, stemmed from a fear of a confrontation with China that might disturb other U.S. interests in China, such as U.S. business interests, climate change, and cooperating with China in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.  Under Obama, North Korea was only a middle level issue in U.S. priorities with China.  Japanese officials should be prepared to warn U.S.officials that the growing North Korean nuclear threat today must occupy a much higher priority in U.S. and Japanese policies toward China.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also would need to offer China the incentive of support for resumption of Six Party Talks if China cut off oil shipments to North Korea subject to verification.  Japan also could issue its own warning to China—that China’s decision on an oil cutoff would influence future Japanese decisions on developing long range strike weapons.



It seems to me that, in support of these steps, the Japanese Government must inform fully the Japanese people that North Korea has between 20 and 40 nuclear warheads (U.S. and Chinese estimates respectively) designed for the Nodong missile.  The Nodong could strike all locations in Japan, except possibly Okinawa.  Despite the U.S. intelligence agencies’ knowledge of the Nodong warheads by early 2013, the Obama administration chose not to reveal this to the American people.  The South Korean Government acknowledged the Nodong warheads only in April 2015.


By describing the total North Korean nuclear attack threat to the Japanese people, the Government of Japan would send a message to China that Japan understands the threat, would be an active advocate of an oil cutoff to North Korea, and would adopt military measures to counter North Korea.  Japan also could use its ties with Russia to advocate for Russian support of an oil cutoff.


North Korea’s achievement of the ICBM by 2020 will close the door on remaining international support for imposing sanctions on Pyongyang. Many governments will begin to signal recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.  They will seek their own bilateral accommodations with Kim Jong-un.  In the diminishing time left before an ICBM, an oil cutoff initiative in the United Nations is the only remaining diplomatic measure that would have a prospect of forcing North Korea to change the course of its nuclear missile program.  It is time for the United States, Japan, and South Korea to play this card in the U.N. Security Council.



Larry Niksch was a Specialist in Asian Affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research until 2010.  He currently is affiliated with private research organizations and teaches East Asian Security at George Washington University.  The views expressed are his personal views.


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