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Stopping nuclear and rocket demonstrations: hitting Pyongyang where it hurts

By Liang Nah - posted Monday, 15 February 2016


Barely a month has passed since the January 6th testing of the DPRK's fourth nuclear device and already, Pyongyang has reminded the world of its reputation as a defiant rogue state by ignoring the opprobrium of the international community, and launching a long range rocket on the 7th of February despite the prohibition of such launches by earlier resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Disregarding the Kim regime's political semantics where it attempts to legitimize such rocketry as national scientific endeavours to place peaceful crop and weather monitoring satellites into orbit, the fact remains that each launch (which uses the same technology as intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs) allows North Korean scientists to gather data which would one day allow Pyongyang to manufacture missiles capable of reaching U.S. soil.

Although the general consensus amongst technical observers of North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs, contend that the DPRK has not mastered the technology to enable any missile delivered warhead to re-enter the earth's atmosphere without burning up, and express doubts that the North is capable of miniaturizing nuclear warheads to such an extent that its purported satellite launch vehicles used in December 2012 and earlier this month, would be capable of serving as ICBMs (warhead weight be equal to or less than 100 kilograms), the fact remains that the Kim regime is stubbornly determined to nurture the evolution of its nuclear warheads and missiles. As such, Pyongyang's scientific establishment should not be underestimated.

However, given that North Korea's leadership and strategic weapons sector seems unfazed by current global sanctions, and allowing the "salami slicing" progress of the North towards a fully operational nuclear arsenal is unacceptable, it is perhaps time for the U.S. and concerned regional partners to "take their gloves off", and start hitting Pyongyang's elites where it would really hurt, specifically their overseas slush funds and retirement accounts. Additionally, if Beijing's quiet cooperation could be sought, it might even be possible to send Kim Jong Un a small but impactful signal that continued governance by the Kim "Dynasty" is contingent upon there being no further nuclear detonations or rocket launches.

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The Ineffectiveness of Current Sanctions

When examining the sanctions imposed on North Korea via UNSC resolutions since 2006, which include resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094 passed in 2006, 2009 and for the latter two in 2013 respectively, it can be argued that they are paper tigers sans any real teeth. Apart from condemning Pyongyang's nuclear and missile testing while demanding that the DPRK's leadership relinquish North Korea's nuclear arms and missile programs, the aforementioned resolutions chiefly attempt to weaken the North's conventional military capabilities, handicap the growth of its nuclear munitions program and stymie ballistic missile development. Additionally, from resolution 2087 onwards, UN member states are encouraged to limit their financial and credit dealings with the DPRK and seek ways to lessen current financial relationships. The most salient parts of the four resolutions are as follows:

That member states shall not export any heavy air, sea or land weapons systems and missiles to the DPRK, nor import such arms from North Korea.

  • That no material or technical assistance that can be used to promote Pyongyang's nuclear, missile or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs be provided in any way, shape or form.
  • That member states shall freeze all financial and economic assets related in any way to the DPRK's nuclear, missile or WMD programs.
  • That no logistical assistance whatsoever be provided to North Korean vessels attempting to transport materials related to its nuclear, missile or WMD programs.
  • That member states are called upon to refuse the establishment of DPRK financial institutions on their territories, nor to allow relationships between their banks and the DPRK, if such relationships can be shown to assist North Korean nuclear, missile or WMD activities.
  • Lastly, that states shall inspect any vessel or aircraft from or to the DPRK suspected to be carrying prohibited materials, or if such inspection is refused, to deny such vessels and aircraft access to their waters or airspace.

Analysing these punitive measures, it can be seen that they have limited efficacy for retarding the Kim regime's nuclear and missile ambitions. To begin with, neither Kim Jong Un nor his late father Jong Il care or cared not a whit about international opinions against their nuclear and missile pursuits. As non-proliferation norms clearly take a backseat to regime preservation, any amount of admonishment by the UNSC will be ignored. Secondly, the resolutions merely seek to persuade member states to take action against the DPRK as a moral duty. This is evident in the repeated use of the words "shall" and "called upon". None of the resolutions compel member states to take action or authorize the use of force against North Korean attempts to violate the resolutions' sanctions. Thirdly, since sanctions implementation is not compulsory, their enforcement and administration is weak and nowhere near watertight. As evident from the North's improvement in rocketry and nuclear capabilities, it can be deduced that material and technical inputs for these two programs are still being smuggled in. Lastly, despite efforts at economic deprivation or eliminating financial sources linked to North Korean nuclear arms or missile research, it must be mentioned that the DPRK still receives substantial material and investment support from China, this allows Pyongyang to ignore UNSC promoted punitive economic isolation and continue to devote scarce national resources to building its nuclear arsenal.

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Punitive Actions which will get Pyongyang's Attention

Consequently, if any new UNSC resolutions are going to be as limp wristed as the previous four, it might be advisable for the U.S. along with its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, to begin actively targeting any international bank accounts identified as being linked with Pyongyang's elites irrespective of connections to the DPRK's nuclear or missile establishment. Like the case of the US$25 million in North Korean funds deposited in Macanese Bank Banco Delta Asia, which was frozen in late 2005 at the behest of the U.S. due to money laundering allegations, so too could action be taken against accounts privately held by Pyongyang's upper crust. Hence, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul could actively ferret out the slush funds and retirement accounts of Kim Jong Un's inner circle, and any bigwigs who walk the corridors of power.

Once identified, American, Japanese and South Korean representatives could then request that these covert nest eggs be frozen while being investigated for money laundering, failure to comply with this request resulting in the boycotting of the aforesaid bank by the U.S., Japanese and South Korean governments along with the companies of these wealthy nations. Considering that Pyongyang was and probably still is involved in the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, counterfeit cigarettes, narcotics production/smuggling and other shady businesses, it would be a fair bet that many of these accounts would be part of the money laundering chain in the Kim regime's criminal enterprises. With resultant legal action taken against the offending accounts, and the realization amongst the DPRK's elite that their financial reserves overseas are under threat, Kim Jong Un would have a harder time maintaining his rule as the DPRK's oligarchical system encounters difficulty securing the welfare of those at its apex.

Finally, if quiet diplomacy with Beijing can secure Chinese cooperation, Jong Un might be reminded of the Kim "dynasty's" vulnerability by a short interruption in the supply of Chinese oil to his nation. Given that North Korea obtains about 90% of its oil from the PRC by some accounts, a short 3-day cessation in oil flow due to "technical difficulties", followed by serious "fraternal socialist advice" from a Chinese ministerial representative, might convince young Marshall Kim to realize that his goal of regime preservation is best achieved by nuclear and missile testing forbearance, since the resultant financial pressure and resource deprivation from his shenanigans might be a greater threat to his rule than any perceived invasion that his nuclear and rocket testing might deter.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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