Korean Central News Agency via Korean News Service

So much for basketball diplomacy. Dennis Rodman’s meeting with his new BFF Kim Jong-un didn’t prevent the regime from threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike to turn Washington, D.C., into a “sea of flames.”

While Rodman’s trip can be dismissed as narcissistic self-promotion, North Korea’s bombastic rhetoric shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Pyongyang’s two attacks against South Korea in 2010 and history of terrorist acts show the regime remains dangerous.

While a nuclear attack on the United States would only ensure North Korea’s own destruction, Pyongyang clearly thinks it can use its nuclear muscle to intimidate South Korea, the U.S., and the United Nations. And it might be right. Even before North Korea developed nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, Pyongyang attacked South Korean and U.S. civilians and military targets with impunity. Seoul and Washington feared that even tactical-level retaliation could escalate into all-out war.

What is different in North Korea’s recent threats are claims that it can already hit the U.S. with miniaturized, more powerful nuclear warheads carried on long-range missiles. The truth of North Korea’s capabilities is unknown, but experts have frequently underestimated Pyongyang. North Korea’s uranium-based nuclear weapons program, its role in constructing a Syrian nuclear reactor, and its long-range missiles were all initially dismissed by experts intent on maintaining engagement with the recalcitrant regime.

The U.N. passed Resolution 2094 on March 7, the latest in a series of international squeaks of righteous indignation. The resolution expands earlier U.N. measures against North Korean financial transactions. The latest iteration is an incremental improvement over its predecessors. The resolution does contain new provisions but it falls far short of U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice’s claims of being “exceptional” and “significantly expand[ing] the scope of sanctions.” Rather than being impressed by additional baby steps, one should ask why the new clauses and targeted entities weren’t included in 2006, or 2009, or 2012.

Western experts on China are again atwitter over debate amongst Chinese think tanks and media over Beijing’s North Korea policy. Chinese punditry criticism of Pyongyang’s behavior is seized upon as evidence that the new Chinese leadership will adopt more stringent measures to rein in its ally. But, such internal debate has been ongoing for years and has yet to manifest itself into enhanced Chinese nonproliferation measures. Beijing demonstrated it continues to obstruct more effective U.N. action.

Pyongyang’s successful rocket and nuclear tests and its menacing military threats show the time for incremental responses and relying on the U.N. is past. Clearly, U.N. threats to “remain seized of the matter” and “determination to take further significant measures” next time have been revealed as empty gestures.

The Obama Administration’s attempts at diplomatically engaging North Korea have failed. Its subsequent “strategic patience” approach lacks the requisite punitive measures to effectively alter North Korea’s calculations. U.S. allies question whether the U.S. even has a North Korean policy.

Congress has become exasperated enough with the listlessness of U.S. policy to call on the executive branch to use its existing, formidable tools to pressure North Korea. The Senate passed the North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act, which, though a good start, lacked the necessary specificity in its recommendations. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is contemplating new legislation to trigger stronger U.S. unilateral measures, including more forcefully implementing existing laws and executive orders.

It is past time for the U.S. to take action against illegal North Korean activities; its nuclear and missile programs; and any complicit foreign individual, bank, business, or government agency. Washington did implement an effective multi-faceted program against North Korea in the Bush Administration, but this was naively abandoned by the Bush Administration in order to improve the negotiating atmosphere. Since that time, law enforcement efforts also appear to have atrophied.

Some questions that Congress should ask are:

  • Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Agency:
    • Has North Korea stopped counterfeiting U.S. currency and running illegal drugs?
    • Have there been legal cases or arrests since Operations Royal Charm and Smoking Dragon?
  • Treasury Department:
    • Does the executive branch need additional legislation or executive orders to target, seize, and freeze assets, and publicly identify North Korea and other foreign violators of U.S./international law and U.N. resolutions?
    • How diligently have U.S. laws and executive orders been applied against North Korea and other violators?
    • Has the Treasury Department engaged in sub rosa meetings with foreign banks, businesses, and governments to dissuade them from engaging with North Korea and other violators as was done in conjunction with the Banco Delta Asia issue?
  • State Department:
    • Are U.S. sanctions against North Korea as stringent and expansive as those against Iran?
    • What actions has the U.S. sanctions coordinator on North Korea taken in recent years? How will the new representative enhance U.S. efforts?
    • Why has the U.S. been reluctant to unilaterally sanction the entities that China refuses to add to the U.N. sanctions list?

The U.N. has shown itself unable to implement measures that impose effective sanctions against North Korea and other violators of U.N. resolutions and international law. Washington should therefore unilaterally and publicly identify and freeze the assets of all North Korean and foreign banks, businesses, and government agencies suspected of violating U.N. resolutions, then call upon other nations to reciprocate the U.S. actions. Since the Obama Administration has been reluctant to do so, Congress should exercise its influence to induce stronger action against North Korea.