EastWest Direct: New Sanctions on North Korea

Commentary | March 09, 2013

Spurred by a new set of UN sanctions on the North Korean regime, EWI's Isaac Molho spoke with David Firestein, EWI's vice president for strategic trust-building and track 2 diplomacy, about China's role in the process as well as the effectiveness of the sanctions.


China notably opposed military action against Libya and a UN resolution condemning Syria. Could this newfound cooperation signal a new phase, perhaps a reset in U.S. relations with China, which you have called “America’s single most consequential diplomatic partner?”

I wouldn’t characterize China’s position on North Korea in the United Nations Security Council as an effort to demonstrate cooperation with the United States, per se; China doesn’t view North Korea principally as a bilateral issue with the United States. China views North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile capability to deliver those warheads more as a regional issue that requires a multilateral, diplomatic approach.

China recognizes, from the standpoint of its own security interests in Asia, that a nuclear North Korea is highly problematic; and because that is so, it has been willing to work with the United States and the other U.N. Security Council members to adopt this latest and toughest round of sanctions.

Bear in mind that, when China looks at this issue of North Korea, it’s using a very different prism than the United States. If things deteriorate on the Korean peninsula – if the North Korean regime were to collapse, or God forbid, there were an actual breakout of war between the North and the South and the various other players – that would affect China in very direct and profound ways.

What strategic considerations are at play for China here, especially in light of the U.S. “pivot” to East Asia and tensions in the South China Sea?

When countries like China, the United States or other players in the Asia-Pacific region take actions, on the one hand, they’re doing so on the merits of the case – in this case, the issue of North Korea itself; on the other hand, they’re doing so in a broader context.

The driving considerations for the Chinese with reference to this particular U.N. action are pretty much self-standing. China doesn’t want nuclear weapons anywhere on the Korean peninsula. China views nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula as antithetical to its interests. What drives this particular assessment is a cool, rational analysis of China’s own security interests.

More broadly, China does feel some sense of apprehension and wariness concerning the United States’ long-term objectives in the region. China sees the U.S. pivot to Asia in terms that are more sinister than anything the United States has described publicly. Chinese scholars and sometimes officials in off-the-record statements have made the point that there seems to be a kind of containment-like element to this policy.

These two issues, the North Korea situation and the U.S. pivot, do come together. In the back of the minds of the Chinese leadership, there must be the idea that China doesn’t want to see developments that give the United States any further cause to beef up its military presence in the region. It’s in that context, as well, that China looks at the region and looks at what’s happening in North Korea.

Do you believe this recent activity signals a lasting policy shift in China’s stance on North Korea?

I don’t think that China’s position vis-à-vis this current round of sanctions represents anything qualitatively new. The United States and China have always had a common interest with respect to the question of North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear program. Both sides want a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. Where they have at times differed is in how far you go with the use of sanctions to try to coerce behavior, with the U.S. historically taking a tougher posture.

I think there’s been broad continuity in China’s position over quite a few years, where the basic interest is a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and peaceful resolution of these issues in diplomatic and multilateral ways. None of those things have changed, notwithstanding the fact that China has now accepted a significant intensification of sanctions toward North Korea.

So why accept the tougher sanctions this time? I think the Chinese leadership is beginning to recognize, even if begrudgingly, that previous international efforts to influence North Korea’s behavior have not had the desired effect. I think China has concluded that it has to try something a little different.

In recent history, the failure of sanctions looms large: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990s, Iran and North Korea, which has been under sanctions for most of its existence. Do you think these sanctions will actually work?

If I were a betting man, I would say no. Is this round of sanctions a positive development? Yes. As a human being on the planet earth, I’m happy to see that these sanctions have been adopted with the unanimous support of the Security Council. But the thing about sanctions that you have to understand is that the very premise of sanctions – or of any carrot-and-stick scheme – is that the actor whose actions you’re trying to influence is a rational actor, someone who will respond to cues and inducements rationally.

If you’ve got an actor that doesn’t necessarily respond to these kinds of prompts rationally, then, in a sense, all bets are off.

There have now been four rounds of sanctions on North Korea that have passed the U.N. Security Council; and yet, so far at least, we haven’t seen the kind of change in North Korean behavior that one would hope to see. So my judgment is that North Korea is not the kind of nation that would appear to respond to these kinds of prompts or inducements in a way that other countries would look at and regard as rational.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has said, “These sanctions will bite,” meaning bite the North Korean leadership, “and bite hard.” And I think that’s a fair assessment. But again, if history is an indicator, I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the North Koreans will react in any readily predictable way to these types of international community actions – except, perhaps, to proceed with further nuclear and missile tests and ratchet up their rhetoric to even more craven heights.

Thanks so much for your thoughts on this subject. Any other comments you’d like to put on the table?

I think everyone’s now watching North Korea. North Korea’s leadership has some decisions to make. It’s very clear that the international community is quite united in its sense that North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program is dangerous and destabilizing. It’s good to see the United States, China, Russia and the other members of the Security Council unanimously agree on this. I certainly hope that we’re entering a phase where the North Korean leadership realizes that the stakes are rising steadily with each round of these sanctions. Hopefully, it will do what’s in the interest of the North Korean people and peace on the Korean peninsula.

EastWest Direct is an ongoing series of interviews with EWI experts tied to breaking news stories.