Kim Jong-un has been up to his old tricks. On January 6, he conducted a nuclear test of what was billed as (but probably wasn’t) a hydrogen bomb. On February 7, he put a satellite into orbit, demonstrating an ability to employ long-range rockets that could be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to American soil. And now he has executed the chief of the North Korean army’s general staff for offenses that remain murky.
In short, the world’s last remaining Stalinist regime remains as dangerous and repressive as ever. But luckily Kim’s aggression is finally and belatedly getting some serious pushback.
In retaliation for the nuclear and missile tests, South Korea has closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business development in North Korea run by South Korean managers, funded by South Korea, and employing North Korean workers. As the New York Times noted, “South Korea suspected that the North had taken the bulk of the $560 million South Korean factories had paid to its workers since 2004 and used the money for its nuclear weapons and missile development.” The closure of Kaesong will deliver a major financial hit to the Pyongyang regime, which had relied on the earnings it derived from this undertaking.
South Korea has also announced that it might be open to deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System), a powerful American-operated missile defense system that has the potential to better defend South Koreans and American troops stationed in South Korea from North Korean missiles.
The U.S. Senate, for its part, has acted to turn up the pressure on North Korea by passing new sanctions legislation, similar to that already passed in the House, which will include “secondary” sanctions on firms from other countries that do business with North Korea that benefits its nuclear or missile programs. It also includes $50 million for broadcasting into North Korea to undermine the regime’s information monopoly.
All of this should have been done years ago, and it is a mystery why the Obama administration did not take the lead on sanctions but, as in the case of Iran, instead had to be dragged down that route by Congress. But better late than never. It is welcome that policymakers in Washington and Seoul are giving up any illusions that North Korea under the present regime is capable of meaningful reform or that it can be enticed into better behavior by handouts or diplomatic outreach.
The only policy that makes any sense is the one outlined by North Korea experts Sung-Yoon Lee and Joshua Stanton: “Sanction North Korea, and don’t stop until it disarms and begins irreversible reforms.” Or, if reforms do not come, do not stop until the odious regime in the North collapses and North and South Korea can be reunited — as spelled out by another North Korea expert, Sue Mi Terry, in this Foreign Affairs article.