My View: North Korea threat requires focused diplomacy and sanctions
A few weeks ago I had the surreal experience of looking across a shiny, new bridge at a Ferris wheel in North Korea. I was in the Chinese city of Dandong as a member of the first Congressional delegation to ever visit the North Korean border with China.
The Ferris wheel is fake; it doesn't turn. It was built to make North Korea look to the outside world more affluent and vibrant, despite its crushing poverty. The new suspension bridge is modern and beautiful — something we would like to see across our own skyline. It is unfinished. It was built entirely by China; North Korea just had to complete the last 50 feet on the Korean side. Despite China accounting for 92 percent of its trade, North Korea has chosen not to build that final connection.
This big, multilane bridge remains completely unused because North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is deeply suspicious of outside influence, even from a Chinese ally. He would rather build fake symbols of prosperity, and forego economic improvements, than risk allowing his people more contact with the outside world.
On the Congressional trip, we had the opportunity to improve our understanding of North Korea's motivations through the eyes of North Korean defectors, American diplomats, and senior officials in Japan and South Korea, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Their message to us was clear: Kim Jong-un sees North Korea's nuclear weapon program as essential for the survival of his regime, and he is determined to keep those weapons both as a deterrent to outside attacks and as a symbol of national pride. External threats to North Korea, including President Trump's talk of "fire and fury," reinforce Kim Jong-un's conviction.
North Korea has already produced a significant number of nuclear warheads and is undoubtedly doing all it can to make sure the country survives a preemptive attack, creating the possibility of retaliation against American cities. Retaliation does not require the perfection of intercontinental ballistic missiles, since warheads can be delivered by boats or cargo containers.
An effective strategy regarding North Korea has to take these factors into account. While denuclearization is and should remain our long-term goal, our immediate goal must be both an end to North Korea's testing of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles, and initiation of negotiations.
The only factor that has a chance of achieving this goal is extreme economic pressure, and that will require Chinese participation. China deserves credit for supporting new United Nations sanctions on North Korea, and but these sanctions, even with rigorous implementation, will not be enough to persuade North Korea to change course.
Additional measures are required to persuade Kim Jong-un that the survival of his regime is at stake. One approach is for the international community to agree to implement an extensive list of additional sanctions, unless North Korea ceases all warhead and long-range missile testing and comes to the negotiating table.
Those additional sanctions must include the shut-down of oil imports to North Korea. They should also include the termination of employment contracts for overseas North Korean workers, which North Korea uses to generate large amounts of hard currency; the end of student visas for elite North Korean families, a highly valued privilege; a crack-down on cross-border smuggling of goods; and full support for protecting North Korean defectors, who China now returns to North Korea where they face certain punishment.
It is often noted that China has been reluctant to apply pressure because it fears creating economic chaos in North Korea, with the potential for hundreds of thousands of refugees to stream into China. But we should also recognize that China doesn't want a nuclear North Korea, and that the one leader who fears economic chaos more than the President of China is the leader of North Korea.
Once we get North Korea to the negotiating table through short-term actions, we can begin to discuss additional ways to achieve long-term agreements that denuclearize the Korean peninsula. The North Korean defectors we met with, including students and a high-level former diplomat, all describe a country going through rapid changes that are increasingly putting pressure on the regime. Working with China and our allies, we should look to aggressively support and exploit these changes, and find ways to create the conditions for a regional security solution.
This month's nuclear test highlights how this is a particularly tough challenge with no great options. But we have rock-solid alliances with both Japan and South Korea; a phenomenal military capability that is closely integrated with our allies; a shared interest with China in addressing this threat; and strong support from the international community, as evidenced by the United Nations' action on sanctions. With focused diplomacy and partnership, we can freeze and ultimately eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat.
Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on East Asia.