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How North Korea Outmaneuvered U.S.

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From youtube.com: Kim Jong Un {MID-163644}
Kim Jong Un
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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.

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.

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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 15-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."

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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.
(Image by (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza))
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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."

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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 Fe'ron, 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.

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Freelance journalist and author of three books: The Frozen Republic (Harcourt, 1996); The Velvet Coup (Verso, 2001) and America's Undeclared War (Harcourt 2001).


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