Oil embargoes have a history of spilling a lot of blood.
Oil embargoes have a history of spilling a lot of blood.

In its toughest-ever sanctions against North Korea, the United Nations clamped down on oil imports, textile exports and cargo ships heading Kim Jong-un’s way. Importantly, though, the oil embargo favored by Japan and the US didn’t happen.

The campaign for such a ban will live on, but there is significant irony in modern-day Tokyo forgetting how spectacularly such a measure failed when Japan was the target.

The year was 1940 and Imperial Japan was moving deeper into French Indochina. Over the next several months, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s team, angered by Japan’s exploits in China and alliance with Germany, devised and implemented ways to squeeze Tokyo.

By July 1941, Japan lost access to more than three-fourths of overseas trade and Roosevelt upped the ante with a sweeping oil embargo on the country.

Then-US Secretary of State Dean Acheson dismissed concerns it might backfire. “No rational Japanese,” he said, “could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.”

Imperial Japan saw the oil embargo as an act of war, an opinion it communicated on Dec. 7, 1941, by attacking Pearl Harbor.

Imperial Japan saw the oil embargo as an act of war, an opinion it communicated on Dec. 7, 1941, by attacking Pearl Harbor.

You could read Eri Hotta’s excellent 2014 book “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy” to understand the myriad reasons why the conflict broke out. Or visit Yasukuni Shrine and museum in central Tokyo to read how the oil-ban-led-to-war narrative lives on.

Considering Japan’s reaction 76 years ago to an attempt to cut off the country’s access to oil, why does Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inner circle think it would work on North Korea?

Why wouldn’t it backfire, as a cornered and desperate Pyongyang regime fearing destruction lashes out indiscriminately?

Today’s North Korea, after all, resembles 1930s fascist Japan more than any other analogy historians apply to Kim Jong-un and what the North Korean leader wants.

The truly Orwellian contours of the Kim Dynasty – the quasi-religious cult of personality, unabashed militarism, propaganda on the inferiority of other races – has far more in common with the worship surrounding Emperor Hirohito than any Soviet-era potentate, as authors Bradley K. Martin, along with B.R. Myers and others chronicle in great detail.

These parallels add to the irony of Abe, whose grandfather was embroiled in Tokyo’s disastrous war seven-plus decades ago, risking repeating that history.

Japan’s Self-Defence Force honour guard before a ceremony for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, September 11, 2017. Reuters/Toru Hanai

The Pyongyang oil embargo push gained momentum after Kim fired an intercontinental missile over Hokkaido on August 27, just days before he conducted the nation’s sixth and largest nuclear test on September 3.

The US and Japan led the charge to prod the UN Security Council to cut the flow of oil to the Hermit Kingdom. That means shaming China, by far North Korea’s biggest energy supplier.

Oversimplification can be dangerous. At the very top of his smuggling game, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had nothing on North Korea’s import and export capabilities, be it oil, counterfeit $100 bills or the Rolexes, Gucci bags and iPhones Kim uses to keep the generals looking over his shoulders happy.

We can make life harder for Kim Inc., but along the North Korea-China border are enough profiteers to circumvent an oil ban.

Also, never underestimate the Kim Dynasty’s willingness to prioritize its survival.

Also, never underestimate the Kim Dynasty’s willingness to prioritize its survival.

“Any country willing to starve its own population will not buckle because of economic pressure,” Daniel Drezner of Tufts University wrote in the Washington Post last week.

In other words, Kim will just feed his 25 million people less and hog even more to get the energy needed for his missile and nuclear arsenal.

The answer, as unpalatable as it sounds, is to settle in for continuance of the multi-year process of enforcing sanctions, strengthening military deterrence and dialogue.

Obviously, US President Trump wants a quick and decisive win on the Korean peninsula. Abe, desperate to stay in Trump’s good books, wants to get the assist. But the global community will be trying to contain North Korea long after both men are gone from public life.

North Korea might resemble Imperial Japan, but leading it to peace and prosperity will owe more to the playbook used with the Soviet Union.

That means a patient, multi-layered solution of sticks, carrots and dialogue of the kind that lead to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to change the geopolitical world’s rotation.

Clearly, it’s naïve to think Reagan-Gorbachev offers a clearly applicable blueprint – or that Trump and Kim possess the capacity for an inspired partnership. But preemptive strikes are barely more an option with North Korea than the Evil Empire.

A vital mistake Roosevelt’s government made in 1941 was not communicating clearly that diplomacy was still on the table. Within the information vacuum that was Imperial Japan, the oil ban seemed a categorical statement confirming Tokyo’s paranoia.

What’s more, as Hotta pointed out, the step fanned a Japanese military narrative that the US wanted war after Washington relocated its Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor from San Diego. Trump’s Twitter feed, with talk of “fire and fury” could also sow the seeds of such miscommunication.

No talking? US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.

Are Iran-style nuclear talks to de-escalate North Korean tensions the answer? German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to think so. What about talking directly to Kim? South Korean President Moon Jae-in thinks yes.

Should Trump bring back the US Information Service, with a mission of making sure every North Korean – and especially the elite – is aware of how badly the country is ruled and alternatives to deal with that misrule?

Definitely, says Martin, author of the forthcoming novel “Nuclear Blues.” What about dropping 25 million iPhones into Kim’s nation and place WiFi satellites nearby? Jocko Willink‏, a former US Navy SEAL and Business Insider contributor, makes an interesting case.

How about increasing military deterrence, deploying more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Aegis missile-defense systems in the region? Many Pyongyang experts concur. Should a last-resort military option be on the table? Of course, Trump’s team says.

Who’s right here? Everyone. A long-term policy mix of sanctions, containment, deterrence and talking brought down the Soviet Union, and it may be the best option with Pyongyang.

If shutting off the oil flow alone could safely tame Kim, China might’ve tried it long ago. Ask the Japanese how that turned out for them.

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