With North Korea’s ballistic missile launch over northern Japan Friday, a familiar ripple of reactions made its way across the Pacific.
First, there was condemnation, followed by calls for unity in imposing tougher sanctions to isolate the regime of Kim Jong Un. Then came reiterations from the U.S. that the rogue state won’t be allowed to achieve its goal: a nuclear bomb that can be successfully delivered via missile to American capitals.
Some believe the latest test is proof that sanctions are getting under the regime’s skin. Already, North Korean coal exports — a key source of hard currency — have been cut in half since last year, and gas prices in Pyongyang have tripled.
But a key question lingers in dealing with the North Korean problem: Is there enough time to let sanctions “bite” before there’s no going back on its nuke program?
“Sanctions can be effective, but they take awhile,” said Mark Tokola, vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America. “The question is, are we going to be patient … or is the pace of the weapons program so fast that we’re not going to have time.”
Mr. Tokola conceded that the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program exceeded most experts’ expectations, but he warned against writing sanctions off completely.
“Sanctions always appear to fail until they work, “ he said.
Mr. Tokola joined Jang Ho-hyun, minister for economic affairs at the Korean Embassy in Washington and Zachary Rosner, a U.S. State Department foreign affairs officer focused on Korea, for a World Affairs Council of Atlanta luncheon forum on solving the North Korean issue Sept. 15:
With CNN updates on the missile launch in the background Global Atlanta interviewed him before the event, Dr. Rosner pointed to the reaction of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Friday called upon China and Russia to put more individual sanctions on North Korea to accompany imposed by the international community.
Both countries voted in favor of a United Nations Security Council resolution heightening sanctions on North Korea after its Sept. 3 test of a nuclear device. But their consent only came after watering down strict provisions the U.S. wanted to see, including a complete ban on petroleum exports to North Korea. While the approved measure cuts natural gas sales, it caps crude oil imports at last year’s levels. It also targets North Korean textile exports and prevents countries from issuing work permits for North Korean citizens, cutting off significant sources of revenue for the regime.
Even further action by China and Russia would bolster a coordinated “maximum pressure campaign” using diplomatic and economic means to get North Korea back to the negotiating table, Dr. Rosner said.
“I anticipate that as North Korea continues to commit provocative actions like sending missiles over Japan that we’ll continue to ratchet up and ratchet up,” he said.
China, for its part, has been hesitant to implement any action that could have a destabilizing effect on its neighbor, which could trigger a flood of refugees over northeastern border.
Reunification is also a non-starter for the Chinese, who appreciate the buffer the North provides against the U.S.-allied South and the more than 28,000 troops stationed there.
One fissure in the North Korea-China relationship is the way its behavior is “drawing U.S. power” into Asia and enhancing cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Mr. Tokola said.
That triangle isn’t exactly as amicable as it could be. With a history of Japanese occupation, Koreans are wary about the idea of Japan restoring its army. But the U.S. has played a role in bringing them together.
Dr. Rosner said the U.S.-Korea ties in particular are about more than just security and economics, but also rely on people-to-people ties and “shared global leadership.”
“It’s a very comprehensive and strong alliance,” Dr. Rosner said. “They are our colleagues, our allies and our friends. In no uncertain terms, the US-South Korea alliance will be the linchpin of peace and security throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”
Trade issues, however, are complicating the response to North Korea’s actions.
The Trump administration has alleged that the KORUS FTA, the bilateral trade deal implemented in 2012, has led to massive trade deficits, which the president equates with job losses. Mr. Trump told his trade team to prepare to withdraw from the deal, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer later walking back that threat to say that only revisions would be sought.
While the deficits are real, Mr. Jang of the embassy says the trade deal itself is not to blame. He pointed to a mismatch between the strong economic recovery in the U.S. and a weaker one in Korea.
Analysts in the past have also said that while Korean cars have sold well in the U.S. market, American cars haven’t found a niche yet in South Korea, accounting for a portion of the gap.
Mr. Jang said sides will come back to the table after investigating issues around the trade deficit. Meanwhile, he said the relationship is strong enough to handle both issues at once.
Korea is also facing pressure from China related to the North Korean issue. Last year, South Korea’s agreement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile-defense system (THAAD) offered by the U.S. caused China to issue a de facto ban on Chinese tourists traveling to North Korea. It also abruptly ordered more than 100 Chinese locations of the Korea’s Lotte supermarkets to “temporarily” close over supposed fire and safety violations in their construction.
Mr. Jang said the North Korean threat and deteriorating ties with China, where South Korean firms from electronics giant Samsung to auto maker Hyundai are extremely active, are the “largest risks” to the Korean economy.
Mr. Tokola said China has an interest in ironing things out, given how important Korean investment and media are on the mainland.
He also stressed the contrast between South Korea as a “big, rich” country and North Korea, which has, according to his calculations, a smaller economy than the city of Des Moines, Iowa. In his view, that means sanctions have a chance of working — if there’s only enough time.