The Straits Times says

Oiling lasting peace with North Korea

Since 2006, when North Korea conducted the first of its atomic tests, the world has imposed a variety of sanctions on the isolated nation in an effort to curb its advance towards being a nuclear weapons state. Starting with restrictions on exports of military equipment and luxury goods, the United Nations sanctions have got steadily stiffer and more countries have joined in with individual penalties, including Australia and the European Union states. The most recent resolution adopted by the UN Security Council, which Pyongyang described as an "act of war", includes sharply lower limits on North Korea's refined oil imports, the return home of all North Koreans working overseas within 24 months, and a crackdown on ships smuggling banned items, including coal and oil, to and from the country.

The Kim regime has not only survived this concatenation of sanctions, it seems to have also thrived; Pyongyang has tested the full range of nuclear weapons it considers essential for North Korea's safety, and developed ever more sophisticated delivery mechanisms, including the last one that, it claims, can reach any part of the world, not least of all the United States. The suspicion is that a nod and a wink from some countries, especially ones that see a strategic benefit in having the rogue state in their tents spitting out at the US and its allies, has helped Mr Kim Jong Un to maintain his grip on the country.

Since China and Russia are the regime's largest trading partners, suspicion has focused on these two, particularly the former, as covertly aiding Mr Kim to survive the sanctions. US President Donald Trump has said that China was caught "red-handed" transferring oil to North Korean ships. Senior European security sources have told the media that Russian vessels were spotted transferring oil to North Korean ships on the high seas. Both Beijing and Moscow have vigorously denied the accusations, saying that they were each fully compliant with the UN sanctions.

That said, Beijing and Moscow have made it clear they will not countenance measures that strangle North Korea economically. There then is not much the world can do except wait for Mr Kim to adopt a more reasonable line. This could take decades; Pyongyang, under current sanctions, is legitimately allowed to import four million barrels of crude oil and 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products annually, on top of the illegal trade that must, doubtless, be taking place.

While its subjects may suffer greatly, the Kim-led regime is hardly likely to be shaken. That leaves but one option: While punitive measures are a pressure point, diplomacy must not be forsaken. The first step towards that is for all parties with a direct interest in the Korean peninsula to acknowledge one another's legitimate security concerns and work to mitigate them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Oiling lasting peace with North Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe