Skip to content Skip to footer

More US Pressure on North Korea Is Not the Path to Denuclearization

U.S. policies are worsening North Korea’s humanitarian crisis with no effect on its nuclear weapons program.

Members of Korea Peace Now! and South Korean Parliamentarians participate in a Hill briefing on March 12, 2019, to announce the launch of a global women-led campaign to end the Korean War.

On Friday, when the news broke of North Korea’s missile test, two dominant myths immediately circulated in both mainstream and social media. One was that U.S. diplomacy with North Korea was failing, because North Korea had once again proved that it couldn’t be trusted to keep its promise. The other was that more pressure was needed to force North Korea’s denuclearization. But these narratives — which cut across partisan lines — fail to address an obvious fact: The U.S. policy of maximum pressure has not achieved its desired aim to denuclearize North Korea. To the contrary, U.S. policies of aggressive sanctions, military posturing and political isolation have only further emboldened the Kim regime to pursue nuclear weapons as a defense against U.S. regime change. As a recent U.N. study reveals, these types of aggressive policies are driving a devastating humanitarian disaster in North Korea.

The Failure of U.S. Maximum Pressure

Following North Korea’s Friday test, many were quick to chastise Trump and the limitations of his personal diplomacy with Kim. Instead of fixating on the failure of Trump’s diplomacy with Kim, we should point to the decades-long failed U.S. approach to force North Korea’s denuclearization, including Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, or its predecessor, Obama’s strategic patience.

North Korea didn’t test missiles for over 400 days while engagement was underway with both Washington and Seoul. Weeks ahead of the Hanoi summit, U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun outlined the Trump administration’s pragmatic approach, a departure from his administration’s previous maximum pressure strategy, saying the president was “ready to end this war.”

Yet in what can only be described as diplomatic whiplash, the talks in Hanoi collapsed because Trump revived Bolton’s Libyan Model, demanding that North Korea unilaterally disarm before improving relations between the two countries as promised under the Singapore Declaration, a clear nonstarter for Kim. Reuters verified that “U.S. President Donald Trump handed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a piece of paper that included a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States.”

While the U.S. media was singularly obsessed with Pyongyang’s test, it failed to cover the Trump administration’s military provocations. Trump reneged on his promise to Kim in Singapore to cancel the war drills with South Korea: U.S.-R.O.K. joint military exercises are still underway. This time the military exercises involved the highly controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, which prompted North Korea to denounce as “destroy[ing[ peace and stability in the Korean peninsula.” On May 1, the United States tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile off the Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Context matters.

Sanctions: War by Other Means

The other narrative that cuts across partisan lines is that sanctions are succeeding in applying pressure on Kim who is feeling the domestic heat as the North Korean economy suffers. Also last Friday, the UN World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization released a joint report signaling the alarm that 40 percent of North Koreans — 10 million people — are in dire need of food aid following the worst harvest in a decade. Following the U.N. findings on the food crisis in North Korea, Washington analysts quickly pointed the finger at the Kim regime, which “spends obscenely on its military while its people starve.”

U.N. Security Council (UNSC) sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK,” according to the 2017 UNSC Resolution 2375, particularly on economic activities and humanitarian assistance. However, the May 2019 U.N. report found that sanctions are in fact harming North Korea’s agricultural production, preventing the import of necessities like fuel, fertilizers, machinery and spare parts.

In addition to impacting North Korea’s food production, sanctions are impacting the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans, such as those working in fisheries and textiles. Sanctions specifically impact the garment industry because UNSC sanctions now ban the export of North Korean textiles. Who do we think works in those garment factories? Of the estimated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans employed in the textile industry, 98 percent are women.

The international community has long known that sanctions are hampering humanitarian aid operations. In October 2017, the UN Humanitarian Resident Coordinator in Pyongyang cited 42 examples of direct and indirect occasions where sanctions have impeded and prevented humanitarian work inside the country.

Yet in the U.S., across partisan lines, the humanitarian crisis in North Korea is solely placed on the government with no mention of the potential or actual impact of international sanctions.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota criticized the administration’s lack of “a plan” or a “real negotiating tactic.” She suggested Trump “should listen to Otto Warmbier’s mother who said we should be upping sanctions.” Even progressive presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders told ABC News the North Koreans are a “threat to the planet” and that the right approach was more “pressure on North Korea.”

Tim Shorrock, veteran Korea journalist at The Nation quickly offered Sanders a corrective on Twitter: “It’s not North Korea that’s a ‘threat to the planet.’ It’s the 70 year-old confrontation between the US and North Korea that’s the threat to the planet – not to mention Korea itself. The US has a responsibility here, sir. You know that talking to peace activists.”

In fact, in March, I was among those peace activists when I traveled to Washington with the Korea Peace Now!, a global campaign of women mobilizing to end the Korean War. We organized a delegation of South Korean women parliamentarian and peace activists to meet with several U.S. Members of Congress, including Senator Sanders. During our meeting, Sanders seemed genuinely concerned about what can be done to address the stalemate with North Korea. The South Korean delegation, which included Lee Jae-Jung, the only woman on the Moon administration’s elite inter-Korean economic cooperation policy team, urged easing U.S. sanctions impeding progress between the two Koreas. Sanders also heard from Esther Lee, a North Korean defector, who talked at length of the counterproductive effect of sanctions on ordinary people in North Korea. “What will improve the ordinary North Korean people’s situation is more engagement with people from the outside world, not less,” Lee explained. After our visit, Sanders released this video and tweeted that a peace agreement is “the best path for American security and for the security of the region.”

Though Sanders doesn’t currently have executive decision-making power, he can introduce the Senate version of a Congressional House Resolution calling for an end to the Korean War, H-Res 152, which now has dozens of sponsors including progressive champions, such as Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal and the first Korean-American Democrat, Andy Kim.

Fortunately, after Friday’s missile test, the White House did not immediately jump into attack mode. After a 35-minute call on Tuesday between President Trump and South Korean President Moon on how to keep channels open with Kim Jong Un, Trump agreed to support South Korea’s food aid to the north, noting that such humanitarian assistance would be very timely and a positive step,” according to Seoul’s Blue House. What would be timely and positive is lifting some of the sanctions that are harming ordinary civilians, especially those impacting inter-Korean cooperation.

Last month, South Korean farmers purchased 30 tractors to send to North Korean farmers in a show of their solidarity and to challenge the harsh sanctions. Five of them are now in Gwanghwamun Square near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul awaiting approval to cross the DMZ. The farmers are calling for the lifting of sanctions, which are impeding inter-Korean cooperation, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism in Mt. Kumgang. In a statement released by the farmers, they said “it is the right of the Korean people to determine their own destiny, citing the Panmunjom Declaration,” the joint declaration signed by Moon and Kim on April 27, 2018.

While Trump’s response to North Korea’s Friday test was measured, unless Trump can recognize the futility of maximum pressure, we may see a dangerous return to the era of “fire and fury.” In his April speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong Un gave Washington until the end of 2019 to “quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one.” The short-range test is a message to Trump: The clock has started.

While there is no guarantee that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, it is more likely to do so if it no longer perceives a threat to its security, which Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed following his meeting with Kim last month in Vladivostok. Putin said that Kim was willing to disarm but needed international “security guarantees.”

In other words, peace is key to achieving denuclearization. We should heed advice from two U.S. leaders who succeeded in freezing North Korea’s nuclear program, President Jimmy Carter and President Clinton’s former Defense Secretary William Perry. In his endorsement of Congressional Resolution H-Res 152, Carter said ending the Korean War is “the only way to ensure true security for both Korean and American people.” And Perry argues that “normalization is essential in achieving denuclearization. They go together hand in hand.”

On April 27, on the anniversary of the first summit between Kim and Moon, 500,000 South Koreans and peace-loving friends in cities across the world held hands in a “DMZ Human Chain for Peace.” I traveled to Cheorwan, South Korea, and held hands with thousands who gathered in this city divided by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), while many of my colleagues joined hands with 200 people in New York City from the North Korean to South Korean Missions at the U.N. Ultimately, it will be the Korean people who will end the Korean War, but it will take all of our solidarity and pressure on the United States to negotiate a peace settlement with North Korea.


Truthout needs to raise $17k before midnight to support our work. Will you chip in a few bucks to get us closer?

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, your tax-deductible donation is critical in allowing us to do our work.

Please do what you can to help.