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Will Tough New U.N. Sanctions Work Against North Korean Regime?


North Korea is vowing revenge for new sanctions just approved by the United Nations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a trip to Manila, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and he told U.S. allies that the door for dialogue with North Korea is open if Pyongyang stops testing missiles and advancing its nuclear capabilities. Until then, North Korea has been slapped with what are being called the toughest sanctions yet.

But is this just the latest round of tough sanctions that don't actually compel North Korea to change its behavior? We're going to put that question to former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He's a longtime watcher of the Kim regime and has negotiated directly with Pyongyang as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Governor Richardson, thanks so much for being with us.

BILL RICHARDSON: Thank you, Rachel - nice to be with you.

MARTIN: How are these new sanctions that much tougher than what the international community has tried over and over again?

RICHARDSON: Well, they affect 90 percent of North Korea's economy. It's a small economy. They embark on cutting off of coal, foodstuffs, a lot of North Korean foreign workers that make money through energy. These sanctions have bite. I have to give the administration credit. And most credit I think has to be the ability to get the sanctions passed in the U.N. Security Council without a veto from China and Russia, especially China.

MARTIN: And I want to talk about China in a minute. But you just noted something. These sanctions are going to target coal and foodstuffs. Doesn't that mean that the people who are going to feel the effects of these sanctions most are just going to be a regular North Koreans, not necessarily the ruling class?

RICHARDSON: Yes, it's going to affect the North Korean people. I've been there eight times. They're in very bad shape economically. Many are starving. But I think what was not passed in terms of the sanctions was oil. I think that may be the next step. These are very, very tough sanctions. The issue is going to be, will China enforce them? Will China stop the cross-border smuggling? Will China seriously make an effort? And I think this is why North Korea is so upset. I think they've reached a point where China is saying to them, hey, guys, you've got to stop; you've got to cool it down. And North Korea understandably is very angry because their one ally may be turning on them a little bit.

MARTIN: So that - you're identifying a pretty significant shift. I mean as you note, it's a big deal that Russia and China let these sanctions go through and that North Korea is now feeling miffed, to say the least, at China for supporting these sanctions. Are you convinced that China is going to make good on this promise to keep the bite in these sanctions?

RICHARDSON: Well, in the past, Rachel, they have not. They've been talking a good name, voting, and then they don't enforce the sanctions. This time I think the turmoil in the peninsula has really upset China - the effect on Chinese relations with Japan, with South Korea, the turmoil in the region and Kim Jong-un not listening to China, which is the biggest benefactor of the country.

So it remains to be seen whether China will fully enforce. But if they fully enforce, these sanctions will have a bite. As I said, North Korea's economy is not in good shape. But North Korea will still put any resources they get, any tax money into their nuclear and missile programs. That they are going to continue to do it seems. But eventually I think there's a diplomatic issue out there that may work. But we'll see.

MARTIN: We should note the Chinese foreign minister said yesterday his country is going to take a major economic hit because of these sanctions. So China is not exactly doing this quietly. I mean they want everyone to know that this is going to be a big deal because they have obviously a strong trading relationship with North Korea. So they want some credit for doing this (laughter).

RICHARDSON: That's right. And we've put a lot of pressure on China. We've threatened sanctions on them, on Chinese banks. I think we've squeezed them a little bit. But we can squeeze them more. And we shouldn't hesitate to squeeze them more. I think the issue is going to be, Rachel, what does the U.S. do about this? And I think you need a strong effort that talks about diplomacy, some kind of a dialogue. I think Tillerson has put out there a formula, maybe some kind of missile-issue pause as part of a diplomatic solution.

MARTIN: I hear...

RICHARDSON: I think that's eventually where we should be.

MARTIN: But I hear you - just in the seconds remaining - I hear you being supportive of the administration's tactics so far with North Korea.

RICHARDSON: Well, no, not entirely because they all speak with different messages. The national security adviser, the U.N. ambassador, Tillerson - they should let Tillerson handle this. The others get a little warlike. They get a little preemptive - military strikes. We shouldn't be talking about that. We should talk about diplomacy.

MARTIN: Leaving it there, New Mexico Governor - former Governor Bill Richardson. Thanks so much.

RICHARDSON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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