THE Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the mouthpiece of Kim Jong Un’s bloodthirsty regime in North Korea, is not known for nuance. Its propagandists were kept busier than usual last week, hammering out tirades against economic sanctions imposed by the UN in response to Mr Kim’s unrelenting missile tests. Reports threatened America with “nuclear weapons of justice”. A typical article warned that: “It is a daydream for the US to think that its mainland is an invulnerable Heavenly kingdom.”
American presidents used to brush off such bombast. Not so Donald Trump. Speaking off-the-cuff at one of his golf clubs, he chided North Korea for its threats, pledging to meet further provocations “with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Even the hyperbole-prone hacks of the KCNA seemed to think this was a little strong. They accused America of “war hysteria” and ticked off the president for being “reckless”. Just hours later, the Korean People’s Army claimed to be “carefully examining” a strike on Guam, a Pacific island that hosts a large American military base.
North Korea’s neighbours are jittery. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, called for a “complete” overhaul of his country’s armed forces. Japan’s defence ministry published a 563-page report charting how the threat from the North reached a “new stage”. A day after Mr Trump’s outburst, China appealed for calm.
The sanctions that sparked this exchange of rhetorical fire were a rare example of co-operation between China, America and Russia. The UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the crackdown a week after North Korea’s second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which could soon enable Mr Kim to order a nuclear strike on an American city.
The new restrictions ban purchases of North Korean coal, iron, lead and seafood (the country’s main exports). According to some estimates, this will deprive the regime of $1bn a year—a third of its foreign earnings. The sanctions also prohibit governments around the world from admitting any more North Korean workers, as the regime pockets most of their wages.
Seventh time lucky
Yet sanctions have not brought the Kim family to heel in the past. This is the sixth tightening of them since the UN first imposed them in 2006, after Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, conducted a nuclear test. North Korea has since carried out four more tests. The regime has grown adept at dodging the restrictions, using illicit slush funds in China to finance business partnerships, says John Park of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The higher commissions on offer for such risky transactions simply attract more capable middlemen, he adds. Enforcement has been patchy: of the UN’s 193 members, only 77 have reported on their implementation of the previous round of sanctions, adopted in November.
China, which accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade, has promised to apply the new restrictions “fully and strictly”. But they do not include the one measure thought likely to cause Mr Kim real difficulty: a curb on the North’s imports of oil. They are unlikely, therefore, to convince Mr Kim to give up his weapons, but some Korea-watchers hope they may inflict enough pain to bring him to the negotiating table at least.
Sanctions will only work if they are part of a “cohesive, clearer strategy”, argues a report by the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank. But analysts accuse the Trump administration of sending mixed messages. Only a week before Mr Trump’s inflammatory remarks, Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, had reassured North Korea, calling for talks and insisting, “We are not your enemy, we are not your threat.” Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, another think-tank, says a response to the nuclear threat requires “carefulness and co-ordination”, which are “not Trump hallmarks”.
Far from talking the regime down, Mr Trump’s bombastic (indeed, Kim-like) rhetoric risks making allies nervous while doing nothing to persuade the North Korean leader to take his foot off the missile-testing accelerator. His statement appears to suggest that America is prepared to retaliate against North Korean threats, not just hostile actions, such as an attack on Seoul, points out Evans Revere, a former American diplomat who took part in the most recent negotiations with North Korea. “If we’re going to respond with nuclear weapons every time the North Koreans say something outrageous, there are going to be a lot of nuclear weapons flying through the air,” he says.
Mr Trump should follow up the sanctions with an offer of talks, even though the former goal of denuclearisation is now vanishingly remote. On the campaign trail last year, he said he would be willing to chat with Mr Kim over a hamburger. Now that blood-curdling barbs are flying across the Pacific, Mr Fitzpatrick believes, “It’s time to have that hamburger.”