The Current

'There are not any good options': Rising tensions with North Korea leave U.S. scrambling

As sanctions and diplomatic efforts fail to curb North Korea's nuclear expansion, critics say the U.S. must change course.
The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

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North Korea has launched its second intercontinental ballistic missile in under a month, which is thought to be capable of reaching the west coast of the United States.

The U.S. is putting the onus on China to stop North Korea — but China is flatly refusing the suggestion.  

As fears escalate around North Korea's nuclear arsenal, critics are saying the U.S. has to change tactics, which have primarily consisted of imposed sanctions and diplomatic efforts.

"We've tried multiple alternatives — none of them have been successful," says Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He has also served as the U.S. assistant secretary of defence for policy and plans.

"North Korea does not depend on anything external to North Korea to build its nuclear weapons program. So sanctions have been an attempt to impose costs on North Korea for what it's been doing, but I think the current North Korean regime … has judged having nuclear weapons as a survival blanket," Allison tells The Current

On July 4, 2017, the North Korean government distributed this photo, which they said is the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile in North Korea. (Korea News Service/Associated Press)

"You could imagine a sanction regime if the Chinese were prepared to engage in it — that basically cuts off all dealings with North Korea … but the Chinese are not prepared to do that and there's nothing that we're able to do, I think, to the Chinese to persuade them to do that."

Allison says China is unwilling to allow for the chaos that would ensue in the region if the North Korean regime were to collapse, nor is it in China's best interest to have the unification of the peninsula under South Korea, particularly if South Korea remains aligned with the U.S. military.

But Allison says the U.S. has little leverage over China at the moment.

"While we can cause harm to them economically, they can cause harm to us."

North Korea ... has said, "We will never, ever, ever, ever negotiate away our nuclear weapons."- Bruce Klingner,  CIA's deputy division chief for Korea in the 1990s

Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center and the CIA's deputy division chief for Korea in the 1990s, agrees that diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea's actions have been unsuccessful.   

"North Korea signed four international agreements promising never to build nuclear weapons. Those all failed," he tells Laura Lynch.

"They then agreed to four subsequent accords, where they promised to give up the weapons they promised never to build in the first place — those all failed. We've had two-party, three-party, four-party, six-party talks — they all failed. And North Korea ... has said, 'We will never, ever, ever, ever negotiate away our nuclear weapons ... we're prepared to talk about a peace treaty, or fight.'"

But Klingner says that sanctions could potentially work if the West were to commit fully, but so far, there has been "weak implementation."

"There's a very widespread misperception that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned, the most cut off nation on earth … It's simply not true. The U.S., the EU and the UN did far stronger sanctions on Iran. That's why Iran came back to the negotiating table."

The United States flew two supersonic bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Sunday in a show of force against North Korea following the country's latest intercontinental ballistic missile test. (South Korea defence ministry via AP)

But considering the 25 million people who live in North Korea today, are there any other diplomatic strategies that could feasibly work?

"I would say there are not any good options," says Allison.

"My wish and hope would be that we could make sufficiently credible to both China and North Korea that we would attack to prevent further tests of ICBMs."

Klingner thinks the U.S. could do more to sanction Chinese financial entities, as they have done with other countries.

"A couple weeks ago the Trump administration sanctioned a single Chinese bank, that was the first time in 12 years. We've imposed $12 billion in fines on European banks for money laundering to Iran, we've imposed zero dollars and fines on Chinese banks," he says. 

Klingner also points out that the vast majority of all international financial transactions in the world are in U.S. dollars, which have to go through a U.S. treasury department regulated bank in the United States.

"That actually gives us far more leverage than people think," he says. "We can seize and freeze assets, we can impose fines — as we did with those European banks — and we can prevent an entity from accessing the U.S. financial system ... It's a tool that we've under-utilized."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Ashley Mak, Julian Uzielli and Willow Smith.