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Could new economic pressure change North Korea’s ambitions?

July 5, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
When it comes to facing the threat of North Korea, there are no easy answers and few good options. Could new economic sanctions change the trajectory of the country’s? Judy Woodruff gets views from John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and David S. Cohen, a former CIA and Treasury Department official.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are no easy answers, and few good options, when it comes to dealing now with North Korea.

We look at whether new economic sanctions like those being considered at the United Nations could change the trajectory of the country’s nuclear ambitions with David Cohen, who served as undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. He also served as the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2015 to 2017.

And John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, he writes extensively on strategic issues and is a political science professor at the University of Chicago. He also works with the U.S. intelligence community.

And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

I want to start with you, David Cohen.

We heard in Nick Schifrin’s report Ambassador Nikki Haley referring to countries doing business with North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. What is the picture? Give us a picture of the financial and business dealings other countries do right now with the North.

DAVID COHEN, Former CIA and Treasury Dept. Official: Well, most of it is illicit, with the exception of the trade with China, and that tends to be in coal, in minerals and very few other items.

There are other countries around the world, in Africa in particular, in the Gulf, where you have North Korean laborers working and where you have North Korea selling weapons to these countries. That is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and in violations of the sanctions.

And those transactions tend to flow through financial institutions in China in a way that is intended to be disguised from the international community, because they are illicit transactions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you have written that new sanctions could be written, could be enacted in a way that would put real pressure on the North. What would those look like?

DAVID COHEN: Well, what they would look like are sanctions principally focused on Chinese front companies and Chinese institutions that are facilitating this illicit trade.

If you look at the way that North Korea engages with the world today, there are a few nodes, 20, 40, 100 nodes, but it’s a limited sets of these companies and these financial institutions in China where the bulk of the financial activity occurs.

We could focus on those nodes, squeeze those nodes, and as a result of that, squeeze North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John Mearsheimer, you have taken a look at this. Do you think that could work?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: No, I don’t think sanctions will work, Judy, and I think there are two reasons for that.

One is that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. Indeed, it would be crazy to give up its nuclear weapons. The United States is interested in regime change, and nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent.

So, you would have to inflict enormous pain on North Korea to get it to give up those nuclear weapons. I mean, you would really have to put tremendous economic pressure on them. And you cannot do that, in large part because the Chinese will not allow you to do it.

For China, North Korea is a vital strategic asset. For China, it’s imperative that the North Korean regime remain in place and that the regime not be toppled. Therefore, if we try to put really significant pressure, economic pressure, on Pyongyang, the Chinese will just move in and counter it and make sure that the North Korean regime survives.


JOHN MEARSHEIMER: And, again, that regime is determined to keep its nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Cohen, what about that?

DAVID COHEN: Well, John’s right that the North Korean regime looks at the nuclear weapons programs as the guarantor of regime survival.

But there is the possibility that there is a wedge that can be driven between the nuclear weapons program and Kim Jong-un’s desire to stay in power. And the way to drive that wedge is by putting coercive, diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime in North Korea. We will need China to make this effective. We cannot do it over China’s objections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But his point is China won’t do it.

DAVID COHEN: Well, I think we have not fully tested that proposition.

And one of the purposes served by the sanctions that were done last week and the sanctions that we can do is to encourage China to take this more seriously and to work with us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, why can’t that be — why can’t that happen?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, let me respond to David’s point.


JOHN MEARSHEIMER: What President Trump wanted to do was, he wanted to get the Chinese to put significant pressure on North Korea to stop these nuclear tests and to reach some sort of modus vivendi with the United States.

But the Chinese could not do that. And the reason the Chinese could not do that and the reason they won’t be able to implement David’s suggested policy is because the Chinese have remarkably little leverage over North Korea. And the North Koreans fully understand that. And the North Koreans don’t play along with the Chinese when they put pressure on them, because the North Koreans fully understand that the Chinese need North Korea to survive.

And once the North Koreans understand that, it gives them significant room to basically poke the Chinese in the eye.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Cohen, what about his point that North Korea — that China really does have limited leverage, not as much as I think some people have been thinking?

DAVID COHEN: They actually have quite a lot of leverage, in both the illicit and the illicit — sorry — the licit and the illicit financial activity that goes in North Korea.

They can squeeze North Korea on the coal sales. They can squeeze North Korea on their illicit financial activity. They will do it to an extent that doesn’t cause a destabilizing situation in North Korea, but they can do it in a way that can make North Korea more interested in a potential negotiation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re talking about threading a needle here, John Mearsheimer. It sounds like we’re talking about something in between doing nothing and doing a lot more.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, you can do a little bit more, but the point is to make the North Koreans give up their nuclear weapons, you have to put a great deal of pain, a great deal of punishment on them. And the Chinese are not going to play that game, because the Chinese are heavily dependent on maintaining a sovereign North Korea.

And the last thing they want to do is see the West bring North Korea to its knees, and then see North Korea crumble, and run the risk of South Korea incorporating North Korea into a greater Korea. This would be a strategic disaster for the Chinese. And this is why we have so little leverage over North Korea when we try to go through the Chinese.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that?

DAVID COHEN: Well, I think that John and I agree that it would require an extraordinary amount of pressure to bring the North Koreans to the table.

My point is that we ought to try. The alternative is to sort of accept a North Korea with a nuclear weapon, with an ICBM. There is the potential that we can use pressure working with the Chinese to thread that needle to bring the North Koreans to the table and to find a way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which the Chinese have been very clear about for many years is also their policy preference, is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to bring — perhaps this would bring them to the table to talk in that way.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re not going to resolve …



I think what we agree — John Mearsheimer, quick comment?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Yes, just very quickly.

Let’s assume that David’s right, and we can put tremendous pressure on the North Koreans. Do we really want to do that? Do we want to back a nuclear-armed state run by Kim Jong-un into a corner? Isn’t that the most likely scenario where they might use nuclear weapons, when they’re desperate?

DAVID COHEN: Well, I think the most likely scenario is if we threaten them militarily. And I think it’s very important we exercise restraint militarily in the short-term.

I think this is a long-term plan that needs to be implemented smartly, but it can be accomplished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think what everybody agrees is, there is a lot at stake here.

David Cohen, John Mearsheimer, thank you both.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: You’re welcome.