North Korea Threatens War

Another global hotspot festers, while American leadership wanes.

On Tuesday, North Korea vowed it would cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War. Soon-to-be-imposed sanctions by the United Nations regarding the nation's recent nuclear test and U.S.-South Korean joint military drills were cited as the reasons for the threat. Without going into details, the Korean People's Army Supreme Command warned of "surgical strikes" aimed at unifying the Korean Peninsula and that they possessed a "precision nuclear striking tool."

An agreement on the latest sanctions was reached between the United States and China late Monday. It represents a shift by China, which has grown frustrated by North Korea's increasingly provocative behavior. The U.N. Security Council followed up with an announcement that it would hold private consultations on the matter Tuesday. It was expected that the session would produce a draft resolution extending sanctions against any entities involved in both the nation's nuclear and missile programs. It is speculated those sanctions could include a further tightening of financial restrictions, more cargo inspections, and an increase in blacklisted companies and individuals. Currently, 17 North Korean entities, including banks and trading companies, as well as nine individuals--all linked to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs--are being blacklisted by the U.N.

A separate announcement by the U.N. press office revealed that Russia, which occupies the presidency of the 15-nation Security Council for the month of March, was scheduled to hold private consultations about North Korea yesterday morning as well. U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity expressed the hope that the council will hold a vote on a resolution by the end of the week.

The latest action follows the unanimous approval of a February 12 press release, only hours after the atomic blast occurred, by the 15 members of the council. They condemned North Korea's latest nuclear test, and pledged they would take additional action. "In line with this commitment and the gravity of this violation, the members of the Security Council will begin work immediately on appropriate measures in a Security Council resolution," it read. If the council follows through as expected, the sanctions would be the fourth round of restrictions imposed on the rogue nation.

Inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for North Korea, especially when the U.S. and South Korea conduct war games on the Korean Peninsula. But the latest statement contains far more specific threats. Pyongyang has warned that it will block a communications line between North Korea and the U.S. at the border village separating North and South Korea and that the 60-year-old armistice agreement will be abrogated on March 11, due to ongoing U.S.-South Korean war games that began March 1. Those war games were characterized as a "dangerous nuclear war targeted at us" in the statement released by Pyongyang yesterday. "We aim to launch surgical strikes at any time and any target without being bounded by the armistice accord and advance our long-cherished wish for national unification," it added.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Each of them occurred after the United Nations condemned them for rocket launches. Sanctions were imposed by the Security Council after the first two tests, and after a rocket launch in December that was thought to be part of Pyongyang's covert effort to develop long-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States.

North Korea counters that its nuclear development program reflects a response to U.S. hostility dating back to the three-year Korean War that took place from 1950 to 1953. Furthermore, they contend that since an armistice and not a peace treaty was signed following the conflict, the Korean Peninsula remains in a state of war.

In Congress, both the House and Senate foreign panels convened to deal with North Korea as well. The Republican-led House panel is focusing on North Korea's criminal activity, thought to earn the nation hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These activities include counterfeiting cigarettes and American currency, drug running, insurance scams, as well as conventional weapon and missile sales outlawed by the U.N. Until now, targeted financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. have been successful, but have upset China, North Korea's primary trading and financial partner.  The breadth of the financial sanctions included in this latest resolution remains to be seen.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce characterized America's ongoing efforts to get Pyongyang to do the right thing, going as far back as the Clinton administration, as a "bipartisan failure." He promised yesterday's hearing "will identify the best strategy for cutting off North Korea's access to hard currency in order to see real change."

David Asher, one of the U.S. government's foremost experts in countering money laundering, terrorism financing, and sanctions evasion schemes, recommended that the Obama administration resurrect the North Korean Activities Group at the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate a comprehensive campaign aimed at Pyongyang's criminal activities. "The administration should revive the NSC North Korean Activities Group, appoint a high level North Korea pressure czar at the Department of State, and commence an inter-agency and international effort to actively pursue North Korean illicit activities, weapons trafficking and regime finances using all instruments of national power," Asher told members of the House Committee.

Asher contends the program would prevent North Korea from earning the hard currency it needs to fund its nuclear and missile programs, as well its ruling elite. He was adamant about why. "North Korea is close to attaining a position it has long sought: acceptance as a de-facto global nuclear power with the ability to threaten and coerce the United States and our allies directly," he warned. "I believe that in the next 24 months the North Korean global and regional threat could go from bad to worse."

Asher further noted that North Korea is maintaining a relationship with Iran, just as it did with Syria in the early 2000s. "Who has both the money and the need for weapons grade uranium, weapons technology and the means to deliver such weapons? The answer is Iran," he warned, adding that this development needs to be closely tracked.

Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, echoed Asher's concerns, further noting that "the Treasury Department should declare the entire North Korean government to be a primary money laundering concern." He also emphasized that Pyongyang remains vulnerable to financial sanctions due to its "overdependence on its shadowy palace economy."

Both men consider China to be the critical player in this latest development, with Asher contending that several areas of the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship should be assessed by U.S. intelligence agencies, and that sanctions against China should be imposed if it turns out that it is facilitating, rather than hindering, North Korea's illegal and dangerous activities.

Senior U.S. government official Joseph DeTrani, who believes North Korea will continue testing nukes and launching missiles, contends that China should step up with regard to enforcing sanctions, and resuming talks with Pyongyang. "My personal view is that China should do what they did in April 2003 when they convened an emergency meeting of the U.S., North Korea and China to discuss the tension in the region and arrange for the six-party process to be established," he said.

In Qatar on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed the hope that North Korea would change course. "Rather than threaten to abrogate, the world would be better served if they would engage in legitimate dialogue," Kerry said. "Our preference is not to brandish threats, but for peaceful negotiations."

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