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Trump’s strategy for dealing with North Korea is in shambles

Signs abound that his economic isolation campaign is failing.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As 2017 comes to a close, President Donald Trump’s strategy for dealing with North Korea is in shambles.

Trump has sought to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs this year by crippling its economy, starving its weapons program, and hopefully forcing it to the negotiating table. He pushed the international community to cut off trade with North Korea and pressured China in particular — North Korea’s closest ally and trade partner — to sever economic ties with the hermit kingdom.

But recent reports indicate that China, Russia, and even close US allies like Germany have been quietly trading with North Korea anyway, keeping its economy afloat in the face of harsh international sanctions. And North Korea today is significantly closer to being able to deliver a nuclear bomb to the US mainland than it was when Trump came into office one year ago.

Trump’s economic isolation campaign doesn’t seem to be panning out as he had hoped — which could make him that much more willing to use force to try to solve the problem once and for all.

It sure looks like a lot of countries are secretly doing business with North Korea

South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on Tuesday that US spy satellites have spotted Chinese ships secretly transferring oil to North Korean ships in the West Sea around 30 times since October.

A US State Department official confirmed Thursday that the administration has evidence that Chinese-owned ships have “engaged in UN-prohibited activities, including ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum and the transport of coal from North Korea.”

South Korea announced on Friday it has seized a Hong Kong-registered ship that it has accused of illicitly transferring oil to a North Korean vessel.

China has denied that it’s selling oil to North Korea in defiance of UN regulations. But if it is, it wouldn’t be the only one doing business with North Korea under the table.

Reuters reported on Friday that, according to unnamed Western European security sources, Russian tankers have have transferred fuel to North Korean ships at sea at least three times in recent months in defiance of UN rules.

In September, Reuters reported that this year at least eight North Korean ships carrying fuel sailed from Russia to North Korea despite officially declaring that they were headed to other destinations. While there isn’t definitive evidence that those ships violated international law, experts say that the activity bore classic signs of sanction evasion tactics.

A December report from the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank focused on nuclear nonproliferation, found that a whopping 49 countries have violated UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea between March 2014 and September 2017.

Drawing on UN data, the study found that countries ranging from Angola to Germany have ignored measures banning economic activity and military ties with Pyongyang. A number of countries, including Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, India, Iran, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates participated in banned financial transactions and other business activities with North Korea.

The report didn’t indicate the exact dates of these violations, so it’s unclear if the number of violations has declined since the Trump administration took office in January.

But nonetheless, the sheer number of countries that have been willing to flout UN sanctions reveals the limits of Trump’s economic pressure strategy. While almost all UN members pay lip service to the notion that they’re following the letter of international law, far fewer seem to be delivering on those pledges.

The violator that matters the most is China, because it’s North Korea’s economic lifeline. North Korea relies on China for nearly all of its energy supplies, and China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume.

Trump’s patience may soon run out

Experts fear that Trump’s patience for his economic pressure strategy may be wearing thin. Trump may could end up ignoring the reality that changes in trade behavior can take a long time and the fact that the US still has more options to try to force countries to follow new UN rules. Those options include secondary sanctions that would target countries for doing business with Pyongyang.

Trump tweeted Thursday morning that China had been “caught RED HANDED” selling oil to North Korea, adding, “There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!”

Aaron Friedberg, a China scholar at Princeton University and former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, told me that Trump may have backed himself into a corner with his inflammatory rhetoric if he decides his economic isolation campaign has failed.

“Either the US is going to have to back down, and Trump will have gone out on a limb and the credibility of his threats will be diminished, or he is going to have to follow through” on the threat of a military intervention, Friedberg said.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned earlier in December that the risk of war with North Korea is “increasing every day.”

The possibility that Trump’s faith in his economic strategy could be faltering makes those odds even higher.