In the wake of North Korea’s continuous demonstrations of its progress in missile and nuclear technology development since the start of this year, it has become apparent that the sanctions, imposed earlier, have not precluded North Korea in achieving noticeable results in nuclear armament.
However, will the unprecedentedly harsh sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, as well as unilateral ones by several countries succeed in forcing the nation’s leadership to abandon any further provocations? The short answer seems to be a negative, as Kim Jong Un, during the Seventh Party Congress, hailed the missile and nuclear programs’ successes as “landmarks in the nation’s history spanning 5,000 years,” and officially declared the Byungjin line as the strategic course of the part.
RISK OF ‘BOOMERANG’ EFFECT
Initially after he came to power Kim was seemingly set on making use of the knowledge that he had obtained through his “Western experience” to somehow improve the situation in the country. There was some movement toward the defrosting of relations, greater freedoms inside the country, friendlier relations with the West, including visits by U.S. basketball players showing Mickey Mouse on stage, etc. However, Kim quickly realized the extent of the hostility of the West, which would like to use such a “partial opening” as an opportunity to undermine the regime rather than to embrace it.
At the same time he encountered some real or imaginary discord in his own ranks and embarked on a very harsh domestic policy, with crackdowns on dissent and the ruthless massacre of his own elite that failed to be sufficiently loyal or was potentially disloyal. Such a way of ruling proved to be much more effective and the image of the external mortal enemy is essential for keeping the population alert and vigilant.
Thus the sanctions imposed by the hostile outside world are in fact a blessing for mobilizing the whole country against such an external threat. North Korean leaders thus will hardly do much to ease the hardships to the general population caused by rupture of the economic cooperation links. Even if the results of the current ban on exports of coal and iron would be limited (there are already some reports of the workers being affected), the authorities would use the chance to blame the “enemies” for all the hardships and the rumors will also show this line of explanations as credible.
The biggest fear is that the sanctions would be used by authorities as a pretext for cracking down on market activities
The biggest fear is that the sanctions would be used by authorities as a pretext for cracking down on market activities and especially decentralized imports to save currency that would affect the newly emerging middle class. It is true that common people’s life has somewhat improved in the recent years despite growing differentiation. This is above all due to the fact that Kim actually gave the go-ahead, first underhandedly and then openly, to private entrepreneurship and marketing, and the country has already made some noticeable progress in this respect.
About 60 percent of its GDP is currently accounted for by the market sector. The authorities may use the deterioration of economic situation to seize more control. Of course there is a possibility that private entrepreneurs would be given a freer hand in finding underground routes for economic dealings with the outside world, but that remains to be seen. However at the Seventh Party Congress Kim criticized both “bourgeois liberalization” and “reform and opening” (a thinly veiled criticism of the “Chinese way”) and vowed to continue socialist construction, which might signal the start of a crackdown on the marketization.
Of course the big issue is how the sanctions would be implemented, especially by China, and how inventive North Koreans would be in circumventing them. Some sanctions are purely demonstrative, like prohibiting certain functionaries and nuclear-research related personalities (who probably will never have the chance to cross the border any way) to visit the West.
Some sanctions, if well-meant, become laughable – like forbidding the delivery of a grand piano to a concert hall (the People’s Palace of Culture) or of cars to the embassies. It is ludicrous to even assume that the sanctions could actually hit the big shots i.e. the ruling class. The luxury items the elite want would find their way to North Korea anyway – and even the absence of them would hardly make the elite rebel against the leadership.
The foreign businesses trying to make inroads into the emerging market of North Korea are those who have been most affected, especially in law-abiding countries. Several projects by Russian companies, based on the formula “investment into infrastructure for delivery of raw materials” virtually came to the standstill, as these are exactly the raw materials (such as rare earth, gold, coal) the export of which were banned. Of course, that might be not the single reason, but surely we can no longer expect risk investors venturing to North Korea.
Are the sanctions veiled as “counter-nuclear proliferation” in fact designed to weaken the economy and instigate the people’s dissent to undermine the regime? Some experts compare them to slowly pumping out air from the glass box of North Korea, in the hopes of eventual suffocation. It is true that the sanctions could make the life of most North Koreans much harder as the revenue from exports would decline and the GNP might fall in the coming year or two before the North Korean economy would acclimate to the new reality.
The sanctions will rather hit the middle class, i.e. those who sell stuff at the markets, engage in exports or foreign trade as well as those they pay for services, like teachers and doctors. This will lead to the retrogression of the country and could potentially force it to act more provocatively.
But that will have no weakening effect on the regime whatsoever. There is no direct correlation in North Korea (or as in former Soviet Union and communist China in the days of “collectivization” and the “Great Leap Forward”) between the economic situation and political power. On the contrary, often the economic hardships make regimes “tighten the screws” for fear of instability.
The lessons of the 1990’s should be taken into account, when a million North Koreans died from hunger but with no weakening of the regime and it did not preclude Kim Jong Il from further militarization. Even the penetration of South Korean ideology and mass culture in recent years probably won’t change much, as in North Korea, unlike the former Soviet Union, the middle and upper class cannot count on an improvement in their personal fortune in the case of the regime collapsing or unification.
And there is no chance the regime would give “the masses” a chance to organize itself in an opposition movement. So “the masses’” dissatisfaction cannot be counted on as a credible factor for a regime change.
North Korea surely intends to have it its way in such negotiations, taking up an assertive position
Therefore the sanctions won’t change the policies of the country’s leaders even a slightly. Their policy is aimed at producing the image of a “strong Korea” and the stakes are high. That is what forms the backbone of North Korea’s policy seeking to be viewed as a serious player that ought to be invited to the negotiating table.
North Korea surely intends to have it its way in such negotiations, taking up an assertive position. That is exactly why there’s only a slight chance that it will heed the world’s calls and is likely to continue building its military strength, including its defiant efforts to boost its nuclear missile potential. Overall, it is a PR-campaign designed above all, as they would put it, to make a big splash.
SHORT- AND LONG-TERM EXPECTATIONS
North Korea is above all interested in security guarantees, economic support and assistance in the country’s development. Pyongyang would certainly want to be on a friendlier footing with Washington, which would allow it to poise itself between the U.S. and China. Whether this would actually be the case is hard to tell, but North Korea at the very minimum would want to mend its relations with the U.S., assuming that South Korea would have to reluctantly follow suit for fear of being left out.
The North Korean authorities do not expect to gain anything from Obama’s administration in the waning days of his presidency. That’s why Pyongyang is raising the stakes and is unlikely to enter negotiations with the current U.S. government: North Korea already turned down a proposal in January. And the stakes will be getting higher so that the next American president would be compelled to deal with the challenge.
It may well be that North Korea’s current design is to offer a tempting (in their view) deal to a new U.S. president for an early diplomatic success. This, in their mind, will allow the new U.S. leader to score a major foreign policy victory and thus be tempted to grant to Pyongyang the biggest concessions possible.
How right such assumptions will prove to be remains questionable. So if disappointed North Koreans could resort to even more provocations.
It remains clear that the North Koreans will not do business with the Park Geun-hye administration of South Korea. And the United States will not deal with Pyongyang without the engagement of Seoul. That is the reason why for the next several months, may be a year, the prospects of any headway are quite bleak, if anything.
The rhetoric unveiled at the Party Congress was nothing new: North Korea expressed its readiness to develop relations with the countries which “respects her sovereignty,” “build relations of mutual respect and open a new phase in improving relations and unification” with the South Korea. However, Seoul promptly rejected a concrete proposal holding military-to-military talks as “propaganda,” dashing expectations, if any, of a breakthrough.