The Challenges of Globalization

The Challenges of Globalization

December 6, 2017

Oil Cutoff Is the Key to North Korea Issue

Michael Mullaney

Currently regarded as the most reclusive society on planet earth, North Korea has garnered an international reputation for isolation and instigation. The latter issue is undoubtedly the most pressing in the eyes of both civilian populations and governing bodies. Media myth and a blatant lack of political progress has intensified the “North Korea Issue.” This ‘issue’ encompasses everything from humanitarian concerns and economic influence to the threat of nuclear war. While public discourse has a habit of skewing the legitimacy of diplomatic concerns, few dismiss the dangers of a potential nuclear attack by the Kim Jong-un regime. Millions would perish.

The North Korea issue is anything but new on the agendas of world leaders in 2017. Its rapid skyrocket to what President Obama labeled as the greatest concern of President Trump’s first term, however, is not something to simply look past. How has a country less than 70 years old grown to be the world’s only superpower’s greatest concern? What have preceding administrations done to deescalate, if at all, the issue? Most importantly, what realistic and achievable solutions should be pursued?

Economic sanctions, intimidation, deterrence, and every other game in the book has made its way to the drawing board. The most difficult factor in resolving the North Korean issue is not necessarily designing a solution, but instead, getting all parties to effectively implement one. Whatever it may be, the resolution is going to be multilateral, the most prominent players being North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China ,and the United States. Geography, economic interdependence, and history explain why and how each country has found itself at the forefront of the North Korea issue. It is in the hands of China and the United States, however, that a peaceable solution will be found. These two countries must therefore crusade the efforts in a largely bilateral solution.

This solution is not rooted in America’s extensive nuclear armament, nor is it in the communist ideology that China shares with its neighbor. Neither intimidation nor open arms have proven to be effective with Kim Jong-un, and so a hard-pressed middle ground is the most viable option. That option is economic.

But sanctions don't work!” cries every news source in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, North Korea has continued its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal despite countless attempts by the United Nations to deter Kim. There is a noteworthy difference, however, in how North Korea reacts to sanctions depending on their origins. Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has recently commended China’s petroleum based sanctions on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Rather than starve the people, cutting oil exports starves the regime.

The so-called “Friendship Pipeline” that runs 20 miles from Liaoning Province into northern DPRK is more or less the country’s lifeline. The Kim regime does not run on food and water, but crude oil and other resources that are necessary for the military’s survival. Previous U.N. sanctions, in most cases drafted by the United States, aim to cripple the North Korean economy to an extent that Kim feels motivated enough to abandon his nuclear program.

Kim Jong-un, whose father oversaw a famine and the death of three million North Koreans, will never place his people or his economy before his regime and its army. Effective sanctions will only arise when China steps off the sidelines. Chairman Xi Jinping must be willing to completely cut off oil from the regime. There is hope to resolve the North Korea issue via UN sanctions if China recognizes that the costs of imminent war outweigh the economic benefits of the status quo.

Beijing’s reluctance to issue an oil embargo is not difficult to understand. Doing so caves into U.S. demand and damages China’s economy. Even if the pipeline is turned off, it is estimated that the regime will have enough crude oil stockpiled to survive for over a year. The risk of long-term damage to the expensive pipeline is also another concern that arises. In order to motivate Beijing, Washington must offer something in return.

How the United States approaches this give and take is up to one’s imagination. An unfavorable but viable option would be a more open approach to China’s desires in the South China Sea. While not an ASEAN member, countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, and India often look to the United States as a friend in the face of China in this region. China’s exploration and pursuits in the area appear to have no boundaries. While the United States would not abandon Asian alliances, conceding economic leverage in this area can make up for the economic loss China would experience should it shut down the Friendship Pipeline. Concessions here make an oil embargo all the more possible.

Politics is a game of give and take. By giving China leverage in the South China Sea, the United States could force North Korea to come to the negotiating table and eventually walk away with a frozen nuclear program. Kim will not sacrifice the arms he currently has, but for the sake of vital oil supplies (which he has never seen cut off before), he will halt further expansion. A Chinese oil embargo is the most feasible and effective step the world could see in regards to the North Korean issue.

Michael Mullaney is a junior at Georgetown University (C'19) majoring in government with minors in Spanish and Chinese.


COMMENT FROM YUNXIN WANG (January 20, 2018):

I have enjoyed a great deal reading your blog. It’s very beautifully written and very persuasive indeed. However, economic damage should not be the only concern for China to reject turning off the oil pipe. An oil embargo will be devastating for North Korea and may lead to the collapse of Kim’s regime, thus taking away from China the leverage to curb U.S.  predominance over the Asia-Pacific region. China is looking for a way to bring North Korea to the negotiation table without completely bringing the regime to its knees. But, you are definitely right that other economic sanctions are not so effective in deterring North Korea and the oil supply might be the key. International sanctions should focus more on the aspects that really matter to be more effective. 

COMMENT FROM RUOLIN ZHAO (January 20, 2018):

I think you raised great arguments on the possibility of employing an oil embargo! I just would like to bring in two points: First, on China’s intention and commitment. I think China’s key concern is not a loss to its own economy, but the security consequences that will be caused by an embargo, especially a war that destabilizes the Peninsula. China has already prohibited refined petroleum exports to North Korea and exported no oil product at all in November last year. China’s commitment to penalizing North Korea and to complying with UN resolutions should be recognized. Indeed, politics involves give and take, but the United States should pay more attention to the real concerns of China by addressing the security side. Second, on the North Korean response to an embargo. I think an oil cutoff is likely to starve the people in North Korea, but not the regime. The public patriotic support for building nuclear weapons to defend the country is high, and the regime can build a perfect narrative to concentrate all national resources on serving the nuclear goal and legitimize starving the people. A full embargo might also escalate the North Korean public hostility against the rest of the world. Given how suppressive the regime is, the likelihood of a civilian uprising against the government is also minimal. Thus, the embargo does exert significant pressure on the regime, but might not be perfectly effective.


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