How North Korea Outmaneuvered U.S.

Exclusive: Like U.S. presidents before him, Donald Trump blustered about North Korea, but the seemingly isolated nation has somehow survived and may now be coming out on top, as Daniel Lazare explains.

By Daniel Lazare

Don’t look now, but North Korea has just won its latest diplomatic tussle with the United States. No matter how often Donald Trump promises to rain down “fire and fury” on the Democratic People’s Republic “the likes of which the world has never seen before,” it’s increasing clear that Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-deterrence policy is working and that there’s little the U.S. can do in response.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

This was evident the moment the U.N. Security Council voted on Monday to slap the DPRK with yet another round of economic sanctions, its ninth in 11 years. The Security Council resolution certainly sounded tough enough as it accused Kim of “destabilize[ing] the region” by exploding an underground thermonuclear device on Sept. 3 and posing “a clear threat to international peace and security.”

But thanks to Russia and China, it ended up with so many loopholes as to be well-nigh meaningless. The resolution imposes trade restrictions, for example, but rejects a U.S. bid to allow outside powers to enforce them by stopping and inspecting North Korean ships on the high seas or by forcing down aircraft suspected of carrying contraband. Where the U.S. had pushed for a total energy embargo, it allows oil imports to continue at current levels. It permits North Korean workers in foreign countries to continue sending hard currency back home, a practice the United States had hoped to stop. And it rebuffs U.S. demands for a ban on the North Korean national airline, Air Koryo.

Considering how adept China, Russia, and others have gotten at evading previous sanctions, it’s hard to believe they’ll have much trouble dealing with the latest round. As permanent Security Council members, Russia and China have veto power over enforcement, moreover, so it’s highly unlikely that they’ll allow it to do anything to stop them from carrying on precisely as they please.

They’ll enforce sanctions when they feel like it and look the other way when they don’t. Trump admitted as much on Tuesday when he told reporters: “We think it’s just another very small step, not a big deal. I don’t know if it has any impact, but certainly it was nice to get a fifteen-to-nothing vote, but those sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.”

In other words, it’s a face-saving gesture with little real substance. As a candidate, Trump swore to make the Chinese do something about “this madman” in Pyongyang, telling the TV news show “Fox & Friends”: “They’re draining our country, and they’re toying with us with North Korea. China should do it.”

Not So Easy

But now that he has to deal with reality, Trump is finding that getting his way is not so easy. In fact, he now has to deal with two realities, not only foot-dragging on the part of Russia and China but an unexpected resurgence on the part of North Korea.

Near the ceasefire line between North and South Korea, President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Camp Bonifas, March 25, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This last item is the game-changer that “regime change” advocates are afraid to face. For years, the U.S. told the world that North Korea was an economic basket case that was killing itself off thanks to its outdated socialist policies. As the neoliberals at Vox put it:

“Pyongyang is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its GDP per capita is estimated at about $1,000, about 1/28th of South Korea’s. It faces chronic shortages of food and medical supplies, depending on Chinese aid to meet its citizens’ basic needs. There’s a real risk that the Kim regime collapses under the weight of its own mismanagement.”

If the North was dangerous, it’s because its predicament was so extreme that it might do something rash out of sheer desperation. Rhetoric like this was not so easy to dismiss in the 1990s when North Korea was reeling under the impact of the post-Soviet collapse and its economy was declining by nearly half.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to that inevitable demise. Not only didn’t it happen, but the DPRK has since bounced back with remarkable vigor. Pyongyang, for example, has seen a building boom over the last 10 years that has rendered it “unrecognizable” according to Henri Féron, a North Korea export at Columbia Law School.

When a project consisting of 18 towers standing up to 48 stories tall opened up in the heart of the city in 2012, observers dismissed it as a one-time occurrence. But Kim has inaugurated a grand new apartment complex nearly every year since, not to mention an impressive new theater, a 37-acre water park, a new airport, and even an atom-shaped science center. Streets are crowded with traffic while young people zip along on inline skates.

Says Rüdiger Frank, a German specialist: “Restaurants and shops are everywhere, people are better dressed, more self-confident than two decades ago, and obviously also better fed, at least in the capital. Air conditioners are mounted on the walls of many residential buildings and offices. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone, and there are even tablet computers. In the countryside, too, signs of improving living standards are visible, including solar panels, TV antennas, cars in front of farmer’s houses, shops, restaurants, and so forth.”

Backfiring Sanctions

To the extent sanctions had any impact at all, they may actually have backfired by encouraging the DPRK to diversify its economy much as they did in Iran prior to the 2015 nuclear accord. Mitsuhiro Mimura, a Japanese expert who has visited the North 45 times since 1996, calls the DPRK “the poorest advanced economy in the world,” meaning that while output is low for the moment, technological knowhow is high.

President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit, July 8, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This allows the country to marshal its resources so as to produce a wide range of capital goods such as “railroad locomotives and carriages, cargo vessels, turbines and generators for power plants, [and] numerically controlled lathes.” On the military front, it turns out everything “from small arms to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, trucks, jeeps, destroyers, and diesel engines.”

This is a productive little economy that the DPRK’s neighbors want to get a piece of. A recent U.N. report thus found that nearby countries “wittingly and unwittingly” provide North Korean front companies with banking services and look the other way when local vessels fly the DPRK flag in order to evade import restrictions.

Andrea Berger, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, described the restrictions as “in many respects a house without foundations,” adding that “not a single component of the U.N. sanctions regime against North Korea currently enjoys robust international implementation.”

Commerce is so brisk, in fact, that Russia recently inaugurated weekly ferry service between Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin, a hundred miles or so to the southwest.

But if nobody wants sanctions, why do they bother at all? Why not stop pretending and allow the DPRK to trade as much as it wishes?

The reason is that the current standoff is not without certain benefits. For Kim, nukes are not only a guarantee against U.S. invasion, but a means of driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul – a goal that Trump has made all the easier by repeatedly attacking the 2007 Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and by reportedly telling Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham: “If there’s going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here.”

If Korean lives really count for less in Trump’s view, then people on both sides of the 38th Parallel may have more in common than they previously believed and the North may be one step closer to its long-term goal of driving the U.S. off the peninsula. Meanwhile, Russia and China are willing to provide the DPRK with a measure of cover for two reasons: because neither wants a failed state, which is precisely what a U.S.-imposed oil embargo is designed to achieve, and because neither wants a South Korean takeover since it would mean U.S. troops right on their doorstep.

China sent more than a million troops across the Yalu River in 1950 to prevent any such eventuality while Russia, which shares an 11-mile border with the DPRK, has enough problems with NATO forces massing on its western frontiers without having to worry about U.S.-South Korean troops doing the same in the east.

Neither country is particularly happy with North Korean off-the-wall rhetoric about beating the U.S. “to death like a rabid dog” or nuking the Japanese archipelago “into the sea.” But they’re willing to put up with the rambunctious Kim if it means holding off an even more rambunctious Trump.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace). 

38 comments for “How North Korea Outmaneuvered U.S.

  1. Winston Smith
    September 18, 2017 at 05:10

    Mad Nikki Haley just made a fresh threat to destroy N. Korea this morning.

    It is Trump and she who are make threats to N.Korea and not the other way about.

  2. MarkJ
    September 17, 2017 at 10:17

    George Washington said in his farewell address – No Foreign Entanglements.
    Instead America is an Empire. Threatening North Korea and as a puppet of Isreal threatening Iran.
    This must stop. America is a rogue state.
    Trump should stay out of foreign entanglements, like he promised on the campaign trail.

  3. Bill Goldman
    September 16, 2017 at 20:08

    This guy Lazare is a perceptive dude. He pays tribute to Kim who the West regards as a buffoon. Kim is far from that. He sizes up the US empire with its 800 plus foreign bases and bossy ways. Even the South Koreans respect him and admire his Northern brothers as a tough crew who won’t be bullied or pushed around. Now that they have their bomb and the means of delivery, big mouth Trump is looking more like the paper tiger we suspected he was.

  4. September 16, 2017 at 18:26

    Very good article with clear insight, thanks Daniel

  5. Bernie
    September 16, 2017 at 17:13

    Kim is no dummy. He saw what happened to Khadaffi.

  6. joeyribs13
    September 16, 2017 at 10:48

    Just take the fat ass out and the U.S. puts someone else in his place its done all the time .

  7. joeyribs13
    September 16, 2017 at 10:47


    • September 18, 2017 at 17:54

      If you would like to see Seal Team Six slaughtered just send them to North Korea. they will gladly do the job.

  8. bozhidar balkas
    September 16, 2017 at 08:23

    Tit for tat and absolutely democratic, just, and necessary: threaten to end me and i threaten to end you! This wisdom is from my great-greatdaughter! She wants a nobel prize for it, but will give all of the money to me.

  9. jw
    September 16, 2017 at 07:05

    lets face it all that Kim Jong Un was doing was walking around playing bad boy and it didn’t work. go back and play some more xbox/play-station Kim Jong Un till next month when this will all start again.

  10. M N Humayun Sheikh
    September 16, 2017 at 04:18

    Are we watching re-birth of Gorbachov or Boris Yelstin in U.S.A.’s President Donald Trump?

    • Zhu Bajie
      September 17, 2017 at 18:12

      No, Trump is bad in his own way.

  11. Michael Kenny
    September 15, 2017 at 11:33

    “Considering how adept China, Russia, and others have gotten at evading previous sanctions …” It’s funny how Putin keeps popping up! Ukraine? Putin. Syria? Putin. Iran? Putin. Now, North Korea! There’s no doubt that Kim is deliberately humiliating Trump, goading him to start a war he knows Trump won’t start. Trump needs a victory to validate his presidency and the humiliation he’s suffering at Kim’s hands reinforces that. Where does Trump go from here? Afghanistan is unwinnable dy definition. Iran would probably be a re-run of North Korea. So that leaves Putin: re-launch the war in Syria or massivly arm Ukraine. Let’s see where he goes.

    • MarkJ
      September 17, 2017 at 10:08

      Trump should stop worrying about NK or what Kim is doing to him and concentrate on rebuilding America WITHIN THE BORDERS OF THE UNITED STATES. Like he promised. If he can’t do that. Then he should do the honourable thing and step down and give the job to someone who can.

    • Zhu Bajie
      September 17, 2017 at 18:11

      Putin is a rational man, unlike most US politicians.

  12. Brad Owen
    September 15, 2017 at 05:58

    USA in huddle with NK, SK, Japan, China, Russia: “OK, so; you guys got this? Good, ’cause we’re going back to the other side of the Pacific now, what with WWII being over and all. Got some long-overdue infrastructure to rebuild and desert real estate to develop. Catch y’all later, and try to stay outta trouble, OK?”.

    • Brad Owen
      September 15, 2017 at 06:14

      “Oh yeah; Russia? We’ll get back with you on that World Land Bridge thing between Siberia and Alaska. Sounds like a Great Project and excellent joint-venture. Thanks again for selling us Alaska to keep it outta the hands of EuroGarchs…good call, that one.”

  13. Joe Tedesky
    September 14, 2017 at 22:16

    For sometime now, I’ve said that the U.S. will eventually sanction enough nations that the U.S. will have sanctioned it’s way into it’s own self loneliness. Suddenly one day into the future the U.S. will wake up to see what oblivion it is in, when it realizes that all these imposed sanctions only created a whole new world market of sanctioned nations. These sanctioned nations will, as we now see they are, will start trading and doing their own back and forth negotiating without the U.S., and to the detriment of the U.S. economy the American dollar will lose it’s reserve status. Once this status is lessened, then the American empire will cease to exist.

    N Korea and S Korea should be encouraged to do some bilateral endeavors. Any lessening of weapons by either side will take time and lots of patience in order to start a disarmament program where trust is excepted. Cooperation by both the North and South will need to be equaled and shared, but I would imagine a United Korea could be a most exhilarating goal to attain by all sides.

    The U.S. must give up this idea of encasing Russia and China inside of the U.S. built wall of both conventional and nuclear weaponry, and redirect it’s defensive posture to just that ‘defensive posture’. Ideally the goal of the U.S., Russia, and China, dominance, will require that these three nations start the de escalation and disarmament treaties necessary to start the reverse minute hand of the Doomsday Clock, and the earth will be a much safer place when this occurs.

    • Carroll Price
      September 16, 2017 at 11:54

      “Suddenly one day into the future the U.S. will wake up to see what oblivion it is in, when it realizes that all these imposed sanctions only created a whole new world market of sanctioned nations. These sanctioned nations will, as we now see they are, will start trading and doing their own back and forth negotiating without the U.S., and to the detriment of the U.S. economy the American dollar will lose it’s reserve status. Once this status is lessened, then the American empire will cease to exist.”

      To a large extent, this has already occurred. Sanctions against Russia and Iran have led to both countries making giant strides toward becoming independent from goods and services provided by the US and NATO nations. In many ways US backed sanctions have played a major role in leading to both countries developing their own agricultural base and alternate financial services.

      • richard vajs
        September 16, 2017 at 13:47

        No matter how isolated America gets, we will always have the loyalty of Israel —-as long as we still have money to give to them.

        • Zhu Bajie
          September 17, 2017 at 18:09

          On my first trip to Israel, in 1980, I read a letter to the editor of the Jerusalem Post. How long, it said, before the US betrays Israel for oil? Well it hasn’t happened yet, but Israelis would be wise not to trust us. Our support for Israel is based 1) on our Cowboys and Indians mythology about how great it is for settlers to replace natives and 2) Dispensationalism, a millenialist theory popular for most of the last 100 years, which claims that a Jewish state, with a Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices, etc., is essential to the soon return of Jesus. Tens of millions of US Protestants believe this and vote Republican.

          But both are feeble reeds to lean upon. The Rapture, the Second Coming, keeps being delayed, no Temple is likely to be built in Jerusalem for the Anti-Christ to defile, etc., etc. Fundamentalist Protestants are finding Dominionism more attractive. Some will probably blame Israel for preventing Jesus from returning.

          The Cowboys and Indians myth isn’t as powerful as it used to be, either.

        • September 18, 2017 at 17:51

          Actually it is Israel that will always have the loyalty of the USA. Israel has no loyalty to anyone. Their prime minister has said that when Israel has sucked everything that is of value to Israel out of the US it can dissappear off the face of the earth for all he cares. Israel has no friends just suckers to be used and thrown away.

    • MarkJ
      September 17, 2017 at 10:18

      Well Said!

  14. Hans Zandvliet
    September 14, 2017 at 21:51

    I think Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are actually quite pleased with Kim Jong Un’s bold resistance and maybe even with his development of nuclear arms and misiles. They know very well that the DPRK does not and will never have any plans of conquest against any other country: how could a relatively poor country with a population half the size of South Korea ever pull off such a stunt? Russia and China understand very well that nuclear arms are the only guarantee against being whiped off the map by rogue state USA, just like recently Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen (and scores of other countries before them).

    In fact, the true worry should be that North Korea’s succesful nuclear defence strategy against the USA-pirates, could set an example for more countries to get nukes. In the end, nuclear proliferation does increase the risks.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 14, 2017 at 22:28

      Hans, what would you think if Russia and China were to work out a deal where N Korea abandons its nukes only if Israel abandons it’s nukes?

  15. mike k
    September 14, 2017 at 21:46

    It’s nice to hear some positive news about life in NK. From US propaganda you would think everyone was starving there. Good for them. They have made a remarkable comeback from being nearly destroyed by the US.

    • Hans Zandvliet
      September 14, 2017 at 21:54

      Here’s some more positive news about North Korea:

    • rosemerry
      September 16, 2017 at 14:13

      They also have a free, universal health care system and good education, which puts them way ahead of the USA.

      • JGarbo
        September 20, 2017 at 04:32

        Yet more reason to destroy them. Hard to be exceptional when graduates are illiterate and health care is unaffordable.

  16. John
    September 14, 2017 at 21:30

    If you really want to take out your adversary… sucker punch without notice….. end of adversary……announcing your intent is an open display of a non-event

    • mike k
      September 15, 2017 at 13:44

      Unless you are really directing your rhetoric to the US public, to prepare them for a war you have already decided to initiate. I don’t think this is the case here, but it pays to keep that kind of ploy in mind.

    • JGarbo
      September 20, 2017 at 04:30

      In a street fight that might work, mano-a-mano, as they say. But “punching” a whole country that can punch back it just stupid. That’s why the US has the Donald as their loud mouthed punk, though exactly whom he’s scaring I don’t see. Trump’s just a distraction while serious diplomatic work continues behind the scenes.

  17. Nop
    September 14, 2017 at 21:17

    The sheer willful, self-regarding stupidity of America’s leaders has resulted in the US being outmaneuvred consistently for many years. Iran has risen to regional power status despite everything. Russia has reclaimed Crimea. The Syrian army is now one of tbe toughest most cohesive fighting forces in the region. Turkey is moving into the Russian orbit. China is the world’s largest economy. The Philippines openly mocked the former POTUS. The record of U.S. failures is unrelenting.

    • Hans Zandvliet
      September 14, 2017 at 22:00

      Well, so much the better. It’s long over due that the US be brought to heel. Maybe some day, after the US Empire has crumbled (as you say, mostly due to its own hubris and stupidity), a Neuremberg kind of trial can be held for Washington’s war criminals. Let’s hope they will live long enough to face that day.

    • Typingperson
      September 15, 2017 at 00:06

      Yep. USA is a crumbling empire. Has been for some time. Inexorable. Inevitable. Despite the desperate, bleating hysteria from Clintonites re fake news lies and bullshit propaganda re Russia-hacking-elections–and bogus terrorism alarmism since 2001 to turn USA into police state.

      A country that spends 60 percent of its discretionary federal budget on war / military / corrupt defense contractors feeding at the trough of taxpayer dollars is bound to fail.

      Meanwhile USA govt “can’t afford” to spend money on education, infrastructure, healthcare, decent jobs and wages for Americans.

      This is a crumbling empire. Troubling that those in charge stay in denial and keep doubling down. So obvious as a taxpaying, screwed citizen.

    • Winston Smith
      September 17, 2017 at 05:55

      I’m afraid so, it’s the self-regarding stupidity, as you say, of the “power-elite, as it was once known.

    • Saabrules
      September 17, 2017 at 18:31

      This is absolutely right. All those America is trying to subjugate play them like a violin. Examples you give are typical and most telling. Russia under the leadership of Putin and his team, has done most of the “damage” Just remember how many times Obama was outmaneuvered in evdry case they confronted each other. But the biggest and most important are these two: First, Russia regained their ancient territory Crimea and stopped further expansion of NATO towards their borders, by standing up to them in Ukraine. Second, by saving Syria from certain demise ( poor Yugoslavia did not get Russian help, due to drunken Yeltsin then in American hands) Russia has put them on notice that there will be no destruction of independent countries by anyone, without serious consequences to the aggressor. While doing this Russia has shown NATO that they have as good if not better weapons than they do. And the best of all, they are far more efficient in helping you. In short few months they have done more to destroy ISIS than USA/NATO in all the time they were “fighting”. In fact they were helping them destroy Syria and that is over now. Yes, folks the mighty America and her puppets are just a paper tiger they always have been. This as result of Russian and other countries opposite military might that is equal or ever bigger. Imagine Russian nukes (plus Chinese) and 1/2 billion army China alone can mobilize. Will America dare to attack them? They as original Roman empire (they are the current one) have had is course. .

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