Much of what we know about sanctions on North Korea could soon become obsolete.
For the most part, governments and multilateral institutions have deliberately not imposed strict measures. At the same time, enforcement efforts have, for various reasons, been less than rigorous.
As a result, most observers believe punitive policies are not effective. As Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University flatly declared about a week ago on this site, “North Korea sanctions don’t work.”
The attitudes underpinning current policy choices are changing, however, and these changes will, in all probability, lead to substantially more coercive measures imposed on Pyongyang in the coming months. Policy is hardening in Washington, Seoul, and other capitals.
The attitudes underpinning current policy choices are changing…policy is hardening in Washington, Seoul, and other capitals
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be the most horrific regime on the planet, but, surprisingly, sanctions on it are controversial, at least in the policy community. Many analysts support engagement of Pyongyang, and, as Joshua Stanton writing on his One Free Korea site charges, they “never understood sanctions and still don’t.” They are, he states in his rebuttal to Lankov’s comments aired by Radio Free Asia, “ready to declare sanctions a failure at the starting line.”
There is debate whether sanctions are in fact accomplishing their objective. Stanton, for instance, thinks they might be working. A downturn in the North Korean economy last year—gross domestic product fell 1.1% according to the Bank of Korea—and a series of defections of senior regime figures in recent months suggest he might be right. “The North Korean regime, which has been repressing its people with an extended reign of terror while ignoring their livelihoods, has recently been showing signs of serious cracks,” said South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye this month.
As North Korea could be cracking, attitudes in Washington are evolving. In recent years, American policy had been crafted to work with the Kim regime. As Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said in early May, “The sanctions are designed to bring the North to its senses, not to its knees.” America, he said, maintained “a policy of attrition.”
The policy of attrition is what some have called “strategic patience.” Yet Washington is moving away from that posture to substantially more coercive tactics. Evans Revere, in an interview published at the end of May, predicted imminent change. The former State Department official argued that Washington should “take North Korea to the edge and have them stare into the abyss of the possible collapse of their system if they do not return to the negotiating table.” And he maintained that the U.S. was already on that course. “I think there is a lot more coming,” Revere noted, referring to tougher U.S. actions.
Two days after his interview was released, the U.S. Treasury Department, on June 1, declared North Korea a “primary money laundering concern” under the Patriot Act, a designation that will probably lead to financial institutions severing ties to the North. Moreover, a little more than a week after the designation, the State Department said it was considering, in the words of spokesman Mark Toner, “other measures.” The next month, Treasury imposed sanctions on Kim Jong Un, ten other officials, and five entities, for human rights abuses.
Not since the end of the Korean War has a Kim ruler faced a foreign adversary willing to risk destruction of the regime
Not since the end of the Korean War has a Kim ruler faced a foreign adversary willing to risk destruction of the regime. Kim Jong Un has apparently unnerved U.S. policymakers with increasingly belligerent—and explicit—threats to incinerate Americans by the tens of millions while his technicians perfect long-range launchers, such as the road-mobile, nuclear-capable KN-08, and atomic warheads.
For the longest time there was minimal official reaction, but American policy now appears to be passing an inflection point, moving to something far more threatening to Mr. Kim.
At the same time, Seoul has also turned a corner. In a tangible demonstration of political will, President Park in February closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, depriving Pyongyang of a crucial flow of cash, which amounted to $120 million last year. In March, South Korea imposed unilateral sanctions on 40 individuals and 30 entities believed connected to the North’s weapons programs.
The South’s action is particularly striking because it makes good on Park’s unusual public threat, uttered in the middle of February, to adopt “stronger and more effective measures” to “speed up regime collapse.”
“For more than twenty years, Seoul had tried to seek peace and rapprochement with the Kim regime, through unconditional trade, investment, and aid during the Sunshine Policy decade, or through forwarding far-reaching proposals for national reconciliation, such as President Park Geun-hye’s ‘trustpolitik,’ ” Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea noted in an e-mail message to me. Now, however, Seoul is leading what David Maxwell of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies calls “a campaign of strategic strangulation.”
If sanctions are not effective now—and it is not possible to know for sure at this time—they look like they will be tightened as North Korea poses greater and greater threats to its neighbors and the U.S. So far, the Obama administration has not yet stepped up enforcement. As the Wall Street Journal noted last week, “the U.S. hasn’t sanctioned a single Chinese entity involved in the various weapons, goods, and money-laundering rackets that sustain the Kim regime.”
Why not? “I can’t say for certain whether the administration is deferring to China for political reasons, but that’s my suspicion,” Stanton told NK News this week.
This year, there was in Washington optimism that Beijing would enforce sanctions with new vigor, but by now it’s clear the hope was badly misplaced. Trade across the Sino-Korea border is booming at this moment, an indication that China is failing to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, the fifth set of U.N. sanctions on the North’s weapons programs.
The Obama administration apparently does not want to have to explain why it has gone easy on China
Section 103 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 requires the president to report on implementation. As Stanton notes, the first briefing pursuant to that provision is overdue. The Obama administration apparently does not want to have to explain why it has gone easy on China. There is in Washington an obvious reluctance to sanction Chinese banks and businesses, but Beijing, through increasingly brazen sanctions-busting, is leaving the U.S. no choice.
A tougher posture would put Washington on the same page as President Park, but her term comes to an end in early 2018. “If the political left wins South Korea’s next presidential election,” Stanton says, “that will considerably weaken both countries’ efforts to enforce the sanctions.”
Most analysts believe it does not matter much what Washington and Seoul do because Beijing can undercut their policies. Everyone assumes the Chinese will always be able to rescue their difficult ally.
That, however, may not always be true. China’s economy, after all, is showing signs of severe distress. It is slowing toward a contraction, the country is accumulating debt at alarmingly fast rates, money has been stampeding out of the country at a record pace, and ruler Xi Jinping has been spearheading a return to regressive policies that can only have adverse consequences.
Everyone assumes the Chinese will always be able to rescue their difficult ally…(but) that may not always be true
Moreover, while China’s economy is crumbling, Beijing is taking on commitments all around the globe and provoking disputes in an arc from India in the south to South Korea in the north. In its surrounding seas—the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea—Beijing is trying to dominate neighbors and close off international waters. At a time of crisis on the Korean peninsula, Chinese leaders could be distracted by events elsewhere.
Even before China has risen very far, impatient Chinese leaders have developed a particularly severe case of Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch.” Beijing is creating a coalition against it without an ally in sight, other than, of course, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
So Kim Jong Un has to worry that while his adversaries are coalescing around tougher approaches his sole backer could be slipping toward crisis. Sanctions, therefore, could shake the North Korean regime far more than they have in the past.
Main picture: Rodong Sinmun
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