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Sanctions, not bluster, can 'hit a nerve' on Pyongyang: expert

Council on Foreign Relations fellow urges scrutiny of any North Korean trade

NEW YORK -- Deterring Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats requires pressure from "painful" economic sanctions such as those enacted recently by the United Nations Security Council, a Northeast Asia expert from a U.S. nonprofit think tank told The Nikkei.

But Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that threatening language of "fire and fury" from U.S. President Donald Trump may fail to reflect any strategy designed to lure North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into negotiations.

Smith also calls for vigilance to prevent any kind of nuclear materials from entering or leaving North Korea. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What do you make of this escalation regarding Trump's threats to meet any further provocations with "fire and fury," and North Korea's threats to Guam?

A: Yes, it's escalatory, but what [I think you have here] is for the first time you got a 15-0 unanimous U.N. resolution that really threatens to hit a nerve for the North Koreans. For the first time you've got Russia and China both agreeing to some fairly effective and painful economic measures.

Sheila Smith

So I think it's important to start the story there, before we digress into the language of President Trump. But it means that in reality, this is going to hurt, and this North Korean reaction is to threaten with the use of force. So clearly the North Koreans see this [resolution as having] a particular impact on the Kim regime.

I do think the president's language [Tuesday] -- I was somewhat dismayed. I know that Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson has since issued a statement, that this was designed to speak a language that Kim Jong Un will understand. I was not convinced when I watched the president that [his statement] was a rehearsed language.

So I think there's a little uncertainty there about whether or not this is part of a U.S. strategy -- in other words: carefully modulated to get a desired result from Kim Jong Un, or it was an off-the-cuff statement by the president, much like some of the language of his tweets.

Q: Who is in charge of U.S. strategy on North Korea, if Trump is spontaneously coming up with new plans every day and Tillerson is talking them down?

A: I wouldn't describe that as a new plan. I think it's the way [Trump] expresses himself, and the manner in which he chooses to express himself on certain policy issues is partly who he is. It's not necessarily part of a strategy or a plan. But I do think the president is always in charge. It is the president's final responsibility to make decisions about when and if the U.S. is going to use force. And it's precisely because he's in charge that I find the language he used a little bit troubling.

The people who implement the president's decisions are his cabinet members, [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis included -- especially on the use-of-force decision. And I think Secretary Tillerson continues to advocate for negotiated solutions for Kim Jong Un to understand that the costs of developing and using the weapons -- both missiles and nuclear weapons -- are getting higher by the minute.

So there's an invitation here, as our U.N. ambassador [Nikki Haley] has repeatedly stated. There is an open invitation to discussion and negotiations. But I think the strategy of the Trump administration, despite the erratic language, is to up the coercive pressure, both economic and in terms of potential instruments of force, so that Pyongyang cannot misunderstand the messaging.

Q: Then how far would you say we are from entering into a military conflict?

A: Military conflicts can start because somebody misreads the situation badly.

I think we saw from that [Defense Intelligence Agency] report that The Washington Post reported on, that our intelligence community feels they are closer to miniaturization of nuclear fissile material. It's another capability issue: They can do more damage, they can threaten more devastation to more countries today than ever before, and they can threaten civilian populations in ways that we would have a challenging time trying to defend if they actually carried through on their threats. So we are -- in that sense -- closer to a potential conflict.

The second part of the puzzle, though, is whether we can deter or detain the North Korean abilities. I think we can deter Kim Jong Un. I don't think anybody believes that he is suicidal. But on the other hand, we need to respond to his provocations. So we will get close to the use of force. We have been flying much more lethal American forces around his country in the last six to nine months, increasingly now. We have upped the ante in terms of the forces and the alert status of our forces in and around the region -- so have the Japanese, and so have the South Koreans.

Q: Going back to sanctions, do you think this new resolution is enough to get Kim back to the table?

A: We shall only have to see, but I think that it doesn't mean anything until implemented.

Q: There are numerous rounds of sanctions already on North Korea. What makes this one different? Why do you think this one's going to be more "painful"?

A: The target of this is the general status of the North Korean economy. Until this point, the sanctions have largely been focused on any entity doing business with any entity that feeds into the regime's ability to proliferate. They've always had an impact on the broader North Korean economy, specifically on the regime's access to the funding, but the target now is the overall trade of North Korea. If the estimates are correct, it's up to $1 billion worth of trade and foreign exchange earnings off the, basically, natural resources trade and seafood trade. So that will hurt.

Q: What do you think the next move for the U.S. should be?

A: We have to keep the focus on China and Russia and their implementation of the sanctions. I think we need to be ensuring as much transparency as possible in all of the economic interactions with North Korea so that we can see without a doubt the implementation of the U.N. sanctions.

I think we continue our secondary sanctions, and we continue to raise the costs and continue to limit the pathways of access to foreign exchange by Pyongyang. We need to be hyper-vigilant on any kind of proliferation, any kind of sale of fissile materials, any kind of sale of missile parts. I think we need to be very, very careful here, to scrutinize what's going in and coming out of North Korea to the extent that we can.

It is just a time of hyper-vigilance, and it's not just defense readiness, but we have to also make sure that our nonproliferation efforts are at their strongest. The rhetoric could flow, but the reality is, we need to defend our allies, and we need to make sure that North Korea has no chance of gaining any advantage from the technical capabilities it is trying to accrue. That means it's a pretty tall order, and we need China on board, so the U.S.-China conversation on that needs to be unforgiving in some ways. We can't take our eyes off the importance of that conversation.

Q: You think the U.S. should continue to threaten the use of secondary sanctions against China even though China agreed to the latest U.N. resolution?

A: I don't think we should threaten, I think we should impose them.

I think we continue to go down the path that was highly considered for years, which is: Any entity known to have commercial interactions with North Korea, that facilitates their proliferation -- any entity -- should be sanctioned. There's a long list of entities. The U.N. sanctions do not get rid of some of the transactional relationships that we've uncovered. It doesn't obviate the need for secondary sanctions. But again, I think the Chinese are well aware of that. I don't think it's an "either or." It's a "both."

Interview by Nikkei staff writer Ariana King

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