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Editor’s Note: Tong Zhao is a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The views expressed here are solely his.

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Cutting off North Korea's oil supply unlikely to undermine weapons program

Risk of miscalculation is increasingly real; result could be an unintended nuclear conflict

Beijing CNN  — 

With North Korea’s testing of what appears to be a more advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), China is under great pressure to impose crippling economic sanctions against Pyongyang, including cutting off its oil supply.

After the most recent UN Security Council resolution over North Korea, China has already pledged to reduced its export of crude oil and oil products to North Korea.

However, US President Donald Trump called his Chinese counterpart to say it was time for China to cut off oil supplies to North Korea, the US ambassador to the UN said Wednesday, and on Thursday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said China “could do more with the oil” to help rein in North Korea.

However, completely cutting off the oil supply would be a drastic step.

Time is not on the international community’s side in dealing with North Korea. But that is no reason for rushing to take measures without fully assessing their possible impact.

So what effect would an oil supply cut-off have on the security of the United States and other countries in the region? The first issue to consider is its direct impact on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

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Detailed and authoritative data about North Korea’s oil use across various sectors and its capability to adjust and adapt to a cut-off is scarce. That said, some research suggests that North Korea could cut its non-military use of oil substantially to ensure that the military felt no near-term effects.

Oil embargo likely to reinforce Pyongyang’s resolve

Another study shows that North Korea has also obtained the technology to replace oil with other indigenous sources of hydrocarbons. Moreover, given that the military probably possesses significant stockpiles of oil, and that the nuclear and missile programs appear to be prioritized over everything else, it is unlikely that an oil cut-off would have any quick impact on these programs.

Furthermore, oil supply is not a significant constraint on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. As North Korea sprints to complete the development of a credible nuclear deterrent capability, it has long passed the stage when it can be contained by fuel embargo. As a result, an oil cut-off is more likely to reinforce Pyongyang’s political resolve to acquire nuclear weapons than to dampen it.

Some proponents of an oil embargo might acknowledge these problems, but still support it because of its potential to destabilize the regime – which raises the second question: If an oil embargo does bring about regime instability or even regime collapse, are we ready to deal with the consequences?

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Back down or double down?

An oil embargo may be able to undermine North Korea’s economic system and therefore create regime instability. But the impact will not be immediate. As the consequences of an oil cut-off are felt – and we don’t know exactly how long this could take – the regime will become increasingly desperate.

Perhaps it will choose to back down. It may, however, choose to behave even more provocatively and aggressively, taking brinksmanship to the extreme in the hope of winning a dangerous competition of risk-taking. Given North Korea’s political ideology, there is ample reason to suspect that this outcome is the most likely.

A more aggressive North Korean regime could further threaten South Korea, Japan, Guam, and even the US homeland.

Faced with regime collapse its threats – such as firing missiles toward waters near Guam – would become increasingly credible. Is the United States confident that it could win this game of chicken without initiating a nuclear war?

From the North Korean perspective, an oil embargo that could threaten the stability of the regime contradicts the US official policy of not pursuing regime change.

If Pyongyang becomes convinced of Washington’s intent to challenge its rule, it could be even more defiant and less incentivized to come to the negotiating table.

The United States, China, and other regional countries have homework to do in thinking through these challenges and achieving some basic common understandings before implementing an oil embargo.

Time to talk

In the meantime, they should pursue two urgent goals. The first is to stop North Korea from further improving its capabilities. In its official statement after the recent ICBM test, Pyongyang declared the completion of its missile development program, implying that no more flight tests are needed.

If North Korea indeed intends to stop future missile tests, it essentially renounces the option of building better missiles such as solid-fueled ICBMs and missiles with multiple warheads that can be more survivable and more threatening. The significance of such a commitment should not be underestimated.

It is time for the international community to be responsive and to reciprocate this possible signal of self-restraint with at least an effort to seek further clarification from Pyongyang about its intentions.

If talking to North Korea can lead to negotiations that freeze its capabilities, this would take the pressure off the international community from quickly implementing an oil embargo that might later be regretted.

The second step is to seriously pursue risk reduction measures. Setting up a direct hot line between Washington and Pyongyang and exchanging high-level envoys – either publicly or privately – are some useful measures to take.

The ongoing game of risk-taking between Pyongyang and Washington has entered a very dangerous stage. The risk of misjudgment and miscalculation is increasingly real and the result could be an unintended nuclear conflict. Containing this crisis is now as important as containing North Korea’s nuclear advancement.