Give sanctions time to work

North Korea has reacted angrily to the latest United Nations Security Council sanctions against it that amount, Pyongyang says, to a "complete economic blockade" and "act of war".

The resolution passed last Friday in a unanimous vote will further squeeze critical oil supplies and trade to North Korea and dry up the inflow of hard currency from itsworkers abroad. The objective is to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programme. Yet, experts do not expect the Kim Jong Un regime, which already has nuclear missile capability, to cave.

Meanwhile in the United States, hawks are advocating a military strike. America is running out of time and must show its resolve, the argument goes. An article in the US Naval Institute's journal argues for "measured pre-emptive strikes to roll back at least partially North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes". Defence Secretary James Mattis told troops at US military bases to be ready for war again.

The Donald Trump administration insists it cannot allow North Korea to reach a point when it can reliably strike the continental US with a nuclear-tipped missile. It demands North Korea give up its nuclear missile programme. But North Korea sees regular US-South Korea joint military exercises as preparations for invasion. Analysts are worried that the White House is now listening to hawks rather than its own State Department. But if the US were to strike, Mr Kim cannot afford not to retaliate.

The latest round takes sanctions to a new level, cutting deep. They must be given time to work. Even if there is doubt they will affect Mr Kim's resolve, slow attrition while keeping the door open to a diplomatic off-ramp is preferable to military action, which would have catastrophic consequences and, in the longer run, could widen and well draw in China.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline 'Give sanctions time to work'. Print Edition | Subscribe