The 2009 episode of The Simpsons titled “The Great Wife Hope” features Marge Simpson stepping into a ring of an ultimate fighting league, which has her daughter Lisa aghast. This prompts the following exchange between Homer and Lisa:
Lisa: This goes against every feminist bone in my body, but dad, can’t you control your woman?
Homer: How could I? I have nothing to withhold.
Which brings us to North Korean which recently launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan and now boasts that they have the technology to reach American shores. And almost immediately, President Trump took to Twitter to assure that everything is under control.
Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea. Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2017
The United States simply has no leverage with North Korea on sanctions
That’s nice to know, surely, except it’s also nonsense. To “handle” the situation via sanctions, we need something to withhold. And given that we have no trading relationship whatsoever with the Hermit Kingdom at all, we can’t not trade with them even more.
This leaves it all up to China, which does, in fact, still have things to withhold. But not many things. The United Nations issued a tough round of sanctions in September, and China has expressed a great deal of reticence to push things further than they already have. Back when the sanctions passed, even President Trump was skeptical.
“I don’t know if it has any impact,” he said, calling the sanctions ”nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.”
As it stands, the September sanctions haven’t done much of anything. Trump tried to shut down some North Korean shipping and trading companies, but North Korean shipping vessels are already blacklisted by the UN.
Sanctions will drive Kim Jong-un underground
All that’s done is drive Kim Jong-un underground and force him to use ships that are registered offshore and flying different flags. Sanctions that are either unenforced or unenforceable are likely to embolden the Kim regime as it finds new ways to get away with defying the international community.
The newest round of sanctions looks equally weak. The UN wants Chinese banks to freeze North Korean assets and reduce Chinese oil shipments to North Korea.
Both might have some effect if China was willing to embrace them wholeheartedly, but neither is an option that China relishes. Too tight a stranglehold on Kim Jong Un’s state-run economy could lead to the regime’s collapse. That would mean a flood of refugees pouring across China’s eastern border, something China would do almost anything to avoid, including turning a blind eye to North Korea’s latest provocations.
So that leaves it to Trump to determine what “will have to happen” to keep the Kim regime in check. It’s probably a good thing that he’s stopped tweeting nuclear war threats, and he’s now focused on getting the situation “handled” via sanctions. And the world awaits with baited breath as the president searches desperately for something to withhold.
(People watch a television broadcast, reporting North Korea’s test-launch of its new ICBM, at the Seoul Railway Station on November 29, 2017, in Seoul, South Korea. Despite President Trump’s warnings, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile early today for the first time in four months. The Pentagon has said that the missile had flown for about 1,000 km (620 miles) before falling into the Sea of Japan. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.)