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North Korea tested a fifth nuclear device in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions. Held on the sixty-eighth anniversary of the regime's founding, the test comes fresh on the heels of a series of ballistic missile tests on Monday as world powers gathered for a G20 meeting in China. North Korea advances its threat capabilities with each nuclear and ballistic missile test. It is time for an immediate re-assessment of ongoing efforts to eliminate the threat North Korea's weapons programs pose to the region. 
The sadly predictable response from the international community will be to issue harsh statements condemning the test, impose a fresh new round of sanctions ― on top of the strongest-ever sanctions imposed by the Security Council in March ― and call for China to do more to tame its unruly ally. These actions will lead nowhere and North Korea will continue to flagrantly disregard the international community's calls to abandon its weapons programs. 
A better understanding of North Korea's history and strategic interests sheds light on reasons for the limited impact of sanctions and pressure on Beijing to reign in Pyongyang.
As history shows, if push comes to shove, the North Korean regime will mobilize human and material resources to make up for the lack of outside aid, goods, trade, etc. 
On sanctions, we must first recognize that North Korea has lived under sanctioned conditions, cut off from most trade with Western nations and advanced goods and technology from the West, since the Korean War armistice in 1953. They have developed the ability to make do with little.
Second, documents from the archives of North Korea's former communist allies reveal that when North Korea's relations were strained with one or the other of its patron allies, Moscow and Beijing ― and they frequently were ― Pyongyang's access to advanced goods and technology from fellow communist countries was limited. Pyongyang responded to these uncertain conditions in the Communist bloc with ingenuity and with robust efforts to produce goods in sufficient quantities through reverse engineering.


Third, North Korea is unique where sanctions are concerned because it is not integrated into the global economy. North Korea is not dependent on trade or exports. Since the mid-1950s, the focus of economic development has been on autarky and the elimination of outside dependencies that might limit Pyongyang's freedom of action. Communist bloc documents reveal that throughout the Cold War, North Korea even resisted integration into the socialist economic bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), fearing the exploitation of advanced socialist countries;

Fourth, as history shows, if push comes to shove, the North Korean regime will mobilize human and material resources to make up for the lack of outside aid, goods, trade, etc. Recent evidence suggests that the regime is already turning to this method to counter sanctions by resurrecting a mid-20th century mobilization campaign;

Finally, if things get really bad, the North Korean regime is willing to sacrifice a segment of the population, as long as the Kim regime and the vast patronage network that supports it remains intact.

These factors combined make sanctions less effective when dealing with North Korea, a truly unique case if there ever was one.

On Sino-North Korean relations, it is an undisputable fact that China maintains greater leverage over and enjoys more access to North Korea than any other country. However, China's leverage, derived from its economic lifeline, does not translate to the ability to influence, at will, North Korea's policies. China's leverage is a double-edged sword. If used over a prolonged period of time, it could lead to state and societal collapse and precipitate a flood of refugees into Northeast China. This is not in China's interests. Neither is sharing a border with a U.S.-allied unified Korea.

Moreover, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the docility of Pyongyang to Beijing. Communist bloc documents reveal that North Korea's relationship with China has been fraught with tension and mistrust. Throughout the past six-and-a-half decades, North Korea has perceived China's actions to be overly intrusive and less-than-respectful of Korean sovereignty. It is to the point where today, if we were to ask China to try to influence North Korean policies, we'd be asking them to do precisely what North Korea has most resented. Chinese officials recognize this, and are therefore reluctant to comply.

Recognizing the limits of international sanctions and of China's ability to control North Korea, U.S. officials must commit to more creative diplomatic solutions. While denuclearization should remain the ultimate goal of U.S. policy, freezing North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs is a priority. Waiting until North Korea agrees to denuclearization before talks is only allowing the threat to grow. As repugnant as it may seem, Washington should be willing to negotiate with Pyongyang if talks offer a serious prospect for achieving a freeze. The U.S. can sit down with foes and hammer out a deal, as is demonstrated by the Iran nuclear agreement, however imperfect. Similar robust engagement with North Korea is needed to break this vicious and accelerating cycle.
 The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. This article was originally published in The Korea Times.

About the Author

James Person

James Person

Global Fellow,
Professor of Korean Studies and Asia Programs, JHU SAIS; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS
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