In a surprising display of candidness, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke highly about how the UNSC sanctions are supposedly leading to starvation in North Korea, suggesting that this will make Pyongyang more pliable in forthcoming nuclear negotiations but simultaneously casting sly aspersions on Russia and China for having gone along with America in implementing these punitive measures. 
RT just published an article titled “Dying North Koreans a sign US diplomatic strategy works, Tillerson says”, in which America’s top diplomat lauds the fact that the UNSC sanctions have supposedly led to such a degree of starvation in North Korea that it’s people are willing to risk their lives on the high seas in the frigid winter in a desperate attempt to catch whatever little they can during the off-season to feed their hungry families. Tillerson extrapolates that this is probably due to the multilateral economic restrictions implemented against the reclusive country in response to its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, believing that it proves that food shortages are now common and that fishing boats don’t even have enough fuel to return to shore, instead drifting across the Sea of Japan to the island nation and washing up as “ghost ships” whose crew have sometimes already died by the time that they’re finally rescued.
It’s “undiplomatic” to speak as directly as Tillerson did, but nonetheless his morbid observation appears to be true, at least from America’s motivational perspective in leading the UNSC sanctions charge against North Korea. The US has always considered sanctions to be a form of asymmetrical warfare primarily used against civilian populations in the hopes of making their daily suffering so unbearable that they’ll either turn against their government in a Color Revolution, flee as “Weapons of Mass Migration” (especially including its “brain drain” component), or offer no resistance whatsoever if a foreign force invades their country under the pretext of a “liberation operation”. This doesn’t always work as anticipated, which can clearly be evidenced by the Cuban and Iranian examples, and North Korea is yet another instance of a targeted population bucking this expectation.
It must be said, however, that part of the reason in this case is that the government has total control over every aspect of society, thus greatly diminishing the prospects for a Color Revolution or large-scale exodus in spite of the reportedly appalling humanitarian situation in some parts of the countryside that was supposedly proven by Tillerson’s macabre remark. In addition, the state ideology of “Juche”, or “self-reliance”, permeates all parts of life in the country and is regularly reinforced, thus adding a solid layer of ideological resistance to the US’ anti-state efforts there. These factors combine to increase the country’s resilience to the UNSC sanctions and correspondingly make it less likely that the people will ever successfully put grassroots pressure on their government to step back from its nuclear and missile tests like the US wants.
To be fair, Russia and China also aspire to see North Korea abide by the existing UNSC resolutions that it’s violated and which served as the tripwire for triggering their rare agreement with the US’ multilateral sanctions push, though it can only be speculated upon whether they’re cynically pleased that people are dying because of it even if this fuels “wishful thinking” about Pyongyang becoming more open to a “compromise”. Since neither of those two have yet to comment on Tillerson’s statement, it would be untoward to put words in their diplomats’ mouths, but his “politically incorrect” conclusion will undoubtedly produce a reaction from them even if it’s an unofficial one. Both multipolar Great Powers were already accused by the US of secretly violating the same sanctions that they voted to promulgate, which could be a possible sign that they feel guilty about the suffering that the North Korean people are (inadvertently?) experiencing because of their decision.
Moscow and Beijing expectedly denied that they flouted the sanctions regime, so it’s difficult to know exactly who to believe. If both of them are strictly abiding by it like they say, and should Tillerson’s comment prove to be an accurate one, then they’d technically be “complicit” in the UNSC sanctions’ humanitarian consequences; contrarily, if they’ve been “bending the rules” this entire time like the US accused them of, then they’d have “misled” the world but did so in order to save civilian lives. Either way, the US put both of its rivals on the spot by casually claiming that the UNSC sanctions are killing North Koreans. The point wasn’t just to rhetorically embarrass these two on the world stage, but to specifically humiliate Pyongyang and get it to lash out against its neighboring “partners” in order to “save face” following the global awareness that Beijing and Moscow are partially responsible for supposedly starving its people.
In this sense, the US is now retargeting its weaponized sanctions away from the population and towards Kim Jong-Un himself, or more specifically his mindset via a new method of psychological warfare aimed at provoking a more public split between him and his “partners”. It’s the US’ intent for North Korea to one day turn some of its nuclear weapons against China and distrust Russia to the point where it’s unwelcome to “neutrally mediate/balance’ between Pyongyang and Seoul or Pyongyang and Washington. This scenario is still a far ways off from being actualized, but that’s not stopping the US from trying to advance it in the present day through the “damning” conclusions that Tillerson “cleverly” implied about his country’s Russian and Chinese UNSC counterparts’ speculatively unstated motivations in going along with the anti-North Korean sanctions.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
Previous articleProspects for Metis Civilization
Next articleDemystifying the West-Islam Relationship
Andrew Korybko is Moscow-based political analyst, journalist and a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. His other areas of focus include tactics of regime change, color revolutions and unconventional warfare used across the world.