Sanctions are a form of force but seem to be the only answer Western countries can come up with. There is no evidence that they are effective, probably because it is not the decision-makers who suffer from them. Pressure on China to do more does not take account of Chinese interests. China wants a buffer but not an out of control nuclear state in the DPRK. Kim is not suicidal but seems to understand the restrictions on outsiders better than some of them do. Negotiations seem like the only approach that would give Kim what he wants and lead to a loss of face by the USA.
Sanctions are a form of force or economic warfare. To be effective they must hurt the decision-makers and be credible. A recent study by the Nautilus Institute in the USA shows that the DPRK could maintain its military activities even if China cut off oil supplies. Other sources of energy could be utilised and it is the poor who would suffer. Since everyone agrees that Kim is a brutal dictator who puts military might before the welfare of his people, the elite and the military would be the last ones to suffer. His propaganda machine would no doubt use any suffering to blame the foreign aggressors and maintain support for his regime. Kim must know what would happen if military war broke out and is not going to commit suicide by actually attacking anyone. He probably does believe that the USA has aggressive designs on the DPRK and that the only way to prevent invasion is by acquiring nuclear weapons. There is no doubt an element of rhetoric in his claims but history suggests his views may not be totally unreal.
The constant harping by Western countries on the need for China to solve the problem by stronger sanctions must surely annoy the Chinese who don’t share the American view that they are the good guys. American exceptionalism and manifest destiny underlie much US thinking and public rhetoric even when not explicitly stated. They really do believe they are good guys. Especially in the light of Chinese history, no Chinese leader could be seen to be backing down to foreign pressure and China may well understand the limits of its influence of the DPRK. China does have an interest in a buffer DPRK but not in an out of control nuclear state, so there is a real dilemma for China. I don’t know what the Chinese will come up with but threats and pressure from Trump and his loyal allies are unlikely to be helpful. The threat of trade sanctions by Trump would surely be ineffective and probably counter-productive.
Kim is not likely to be interested in Australian views so we must assume that Mr Turnbull is either very naive – which I doubt – or is playing the domestic/loyal ally card. Domestically, the line is that the US will save us from the Korean dragon. Internationally, it is a sign of solidarity with the US to which we are joined at the hip, or as some would suggest, a little further round the anatomy. The collapse of the DPRK would have very negative effects on both the ROK and China so it is not surprising that they show a less aggressive approach. So the US and its acolytes are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Force would lead to disaster and nothing except negotiations is likely to stop the DPRK continuing on its current path, which would mean a loss of face for the USA. China and Russia have made their displeasure known by voting for Security Council sanctions but to no avail.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat who served in Seoul on the UN Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea in the 1960s (it did neither) and returned to Korean and Chinese interests in the 1990s as head of the Asia Division in DFAT and as contact point for negotiations with the DPRK after our mission in Pyongyang was closed. He was also Ambassador to Russia amongst other ambassadorial appointments and served as Ambassador and Deputy PR to the UN when we were on the Security Council.