Donald Trump is hedging his bets on North Korea. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nation’s last week got the attention, but his Executive Order a couple days later authorizing the US Treasury Department to target just about anyone, anywhere doing business with North Korea is more important.

(That is, once one gets over the surprise that Treasury couldn’t already do this.)

This is a welcome improvement on the sieve-like sanctions against North Korea and near non-existent effort against the many countries that do business with the Kim regime.

China, North Korea’s principal backer, needs to worry about forceful ‘secondary’ sanctions in addition to penalties threatened under the Section 301 inquiry into improper Chinese trade practices recently authorized by Trump.

The US Government has all the legal tools it needs to impose real sanctions on the Kim regime – and its aiders and abettors – and appears ready to use them.

That a Queens, New York, real estate developer accomplished this overdue shift in US policy is less surprising than it seems. Trump may not have a degree in international relations but he’s getting good advice and also appears to have the right instincts.

These instincts were presumably honed by experience – succeeding beyond his peers in a construction industry plagued by mafia influence, organized labor unions, and Democratic party controlled local governments in the pocket of the labor unions.

In the process, Trump developed precisely the skills needed to deal with similar mentalities found in North Korea and China – not exactly a refined crowd.

The sound of a US president laying out America’s position in unvarnished, declarative language at the United Nations horrified some listeners. And the “just learn to live with a nuclear North Korea” or “negotiate it out” crowd is predictably resurfacing.

Obama era officials can be heard on the news and the talk shows clucking about needing to tone down the language since Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim are sounding like schoolyard bullies. Though after eight years of abject failure at deterrence, with a hydrogen weapon and ICBM’s almost in Kim’s grasp, these people simply have no credibility.

If North Korea gets where it intends to go, expect Japan to go nuclear, and maybe South Korea, too.

If North Korea gets where it intends to go, expect Japan to go nuclear, and maybe South Korea, too.

The Kim regime will step up hectoring against South Korea and the US in hopes of splitting the US-South Korea alliance. At which point, a military push to “reunify” the peninsula starts to look feasible to Kim Jong-un – no matter how the American foreign policy class thinks he should see it.

Try staying out of that conflict if you’re the US President.

War must be the last option. But if serious sanctions aren’t tried (and they never have been) that’s where we will likely end up, even if Kim is given everything he wants in the short term – money, food, military training freezes, and other assurances.

Now is not the time to slacken the pressure on the North Korean regime, China, and others, but instead to raise it.

Friendly foreign governments should eject North Korean ambassadors (as Mexico has done), close down North Korean business operations (legal and illicit), and block luxury goods shipments to the Kim regime on various pretexts – not least running afoul of the Americans if common decency won’t do.

Then, other governments should start loading up planes with North Korean laborers to be sent home.

Then, other governments should start loading up planes with North Korean laborers to be sent home.

Booting North Korea out of the United Nations is a long shot, but also worth a try.

The US Foreign Service feels unloved under every administration, but even more so since Rex Tillerson took over as Secretary of State. The Foreign Service now has the opportunity to make itself useful.

It falls to the US diplomatic corps to visit the decision makers in foreign capitals, and in a polite and courteous way explain that these actions need to be done, say, before the end of the month.

The idea is to create a cascading series of very visible events, including North Korean airports flooded with returning workers from all over the globe, that is difficult to hide from the masses.

China won’t help voluntarily, but for the first time it has something to worry about. Present it with a choice between doing business with North Korea or with the United States and the men in Zhongnanhai can do the cost benefit analysis.

And there’s no need to go easy on China in exchange for help reining in North Korea. It has never helped, and anyway it repeatedly says it has no influence over the Kim regime.

Few people outside the American foreign policy commentariat believe this, but let’s apply secondary sanctions on China and find out.

After a quarter of century of failure (admittedly a bipartisan achievement), it’s time for a different approach. It’s just ironic that Trump – who as far is as known did not spend his junior year abroad – is the one to finally get American policy towards North Korea pointed in the right direction.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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