Paul R. Pillar
North Korea Nuclear Proliferation, East Asia
The new United Nations Security Council resolution on North Korea was mainly a U.S.-promoted show, even though it passed unanimously. The principal story of the resolution concerned how severe a set of sanctions the United States could get enacted, and how much it needed to water down the resolution to get support from other members of the council and especially to avoid vetoes from China and Russia. Press coverage of the council’s action and the diplomacy surrounding it was all about the extent of the sanctions, what they did and did not cover, and how they went beyond previously enacted sanctions. There was almost no mention in the coverage of what the sanctions were intended to accomplish.
This imbalance of attention mirrors the habitual American approach to sanctions, in which almost all discussion and debate is focused on finding new ways to inflict punishment on whatever country is the target of the sanctions, with far less attention to exactly what the government of that country would have to do to avoid or remove the sanctions, and even less attention to whether it is realistic to expect such a change in the targeted country’s policies. Too often the subject is treated as if the purpose of sanctions is to express our displeasure with a foreign regime—which, in terms of domestic politics, often really is the purpose.
The Trump administration’s policy on North Korea has so far been firmly in this unfortunate tradition of giving much attention to threats and punishment but far less to defining carefully exactly what we expect from the North Koreans. Trump’s much-noticed threat to inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was what he said would be the response if Pyongyang did not heed his warning that it “best not make any more threats to the United States”. What exactly is the line being drawn here, which North Korea is not supposed to cross lest it receive the fire and fury? North Korea makes threats against the United States all the time. Is it supposed to cut out the inflammatory rhetoric? If it is actions and not just rhetoric that are deemed to constitute threats, exactly which actions? North Korea does plenty of objectionable things, many of which could be considered threatening, but are they all worthy grounds for employing the fire and fury? We are left to wonder, and so are the North Koreans.