As of late, the issue of sanctions has been at the front and center of all discussions regarding North Korea. Because of well-founded disappointment in the ‘soft-line’ approach – centered around negotiations and mutual concessions – an unavoidable result has emerged for many: that sanctions are now “the only game in town”.
Despite this recent shift in opinion, I cannot be enthusiastic about the tightening sanctions on North Korea, which are firstly difficult to implement and, secondly, unlikely to produce desirable results – even if properly implemented
This lengthy piece is, therefore, in a sense an indirect response to Joshua Stanton’s criticism – “indirect” because, instead of arguing point by point, I will reiterate my arguments about the inefficiency of sanctions in a more systematic manner.
HURDLES TO IMPLEMENTATION
To start with, North Korea sanctions don’t work. To put it in a more cautious way, so far they have failed to produce any noticeable impact on the state of the DPRK economy or the lifestyle of common North Koreans or members of the elite.
The international sanctions regime was first introduced by the UN Security Council in 2006, at the time when the North Korean economy began its slow recovery from the 15 years of crisis experienced after the collapse of the communist bloc. Yet despite ever-tightening sanctions, the ten years that since passed have been a time of steady economic growth and significant improvement in the living standards for a majority of the North Korean population.
The ten years that since passed have been a time of steady economic growth and significant improvement in the living standards for a majority of the North Korean population.
The inefficiency of those sanctions has been once again demonstrated by the results of Resolution 2270, which was adopted by the UN Security Council in early March 2016. This resolution envisioned sanctions of hitherto unprecedented severity, including, for example, a complete or partial ban on mineral exports from North Korea. However, after nearly half a year of the sanctions being implemented, it is still “business as usual” in North Korea. Such vital economic indicators as grain market prices and market exchange rates for foreign currencies have remained virtually unchanged, while most of the construction projects (including resource-wasteful hallmark projects in Pyongyang) are still continuing apace.
There are many reasons why initial UN sanctions and those outlined by Resolution 2270 have been so inefficient, but the major role is played by the uneasy and controversial attitude of China.
When from time-to-time the Chinese government expresses its support for some sanctions or criticizes North Korean policies on nuclear and missile issues, there are outbursts of joy in Washington and other Western capitals where people start saying that “finally the Chinese are in the same boat with us”. But such optimism has so far always been proven to be misplaced, for the Chinese are not in the same boat with the United States and they are unlikely to share this proverbial boat ride in the foreseeable future.
There is little doubt that China is seriously annoyed by North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship and its nuclear and missile program as an indirect but significant security threat. However, on the list of the problems the Chinese government has to deal with, this particular danger is not very high. For China, any possible change in status quo on the Korean peninsula constitutes a potential challenge, and this is well understood in Beijing.
From decades of painful experiences, the Chinese have learned that the North Korean government is remarkably indifferent to minor pressures, so Pyongyang reacts to outside demands only when it faces a mortal threat. China, having a near complete monopoly on North Korean foreign trade, is in a position to create a crisis of such magnitude that it would indeed put in danger the survival of the DPRK economy and – perhaps – even reverse its policy on the nuclear issue. Indeed, if China stops all trade and dramatically reduces the number of North Koreans residing and doing business in China, this would wipe out the North Korean economy in a year or two.
China does not need regime collapse, revolution, and anarchy in a nuclear country located on its borders
However, such a crisis is likely to produce results which will not serve China’s long-term strategic interests. It is possible that the North Korean government would yield and indeed surrender its nuclear program, but it is even more likely that it will remain stubborn to the bitter end, leaving the crisis to trigger a revolution. However, this is clearly not what China wants. China does not need regime collapse, revolution, and anarchy in a nuclear country located on its borders. And, of course, it is not very enthusiastic about the emergence of a unified Korea, which is likely to be democratic, nationalistic, and friendly to the United States, Beijing’s major strategic adversary.
Thus, one should not be surprised that the Chinese are using their trade, economic exchanges and aid to North Korea in a very measured manner. They sometimes decrease the amount of economic exchange and giveaways, but it is usually done for symbolic purposes to indicate Chinese dissatisfaction with particular North Korean actions.
And it seems that this is exactly what we see now again: after a few months of a tough approach, China appears to be getting softer on Pyongyang. While this turn is currently being brought about by the general deterioration in Beijing-Washington relations and emergence of the THAAD deployment issue, it is nevertheles something that was going to happen anyway.
ELITE ONLY SANCTIONS?
Proponents of sanctions are likely to reject what has been said above, claiming that the major goal is not to damage the North Korean economy nor to make the life of common North Koreans more difficult. Instead, they will claim, it is rather to create uncomfortable conditions for the North Korean elite so they will start considering a change of their policies in order to have their life comforts returned to them. To simplify things a bit, it is assumed – or hoped – that if top decision makers are deprived of their Hennessey cognac, overseas travel and Mercedes Benz luxury cars for a sufficiently long period of time, they will start considering the denuclearization of their country.
Such logic would possibly work in most authoritarian states, where the ruling elite does not face an existential threat. Therefore in an average dictatorship, elite dissatisfaction might lead to a palace coup or revolution. But such political changes are unlikely to produce a wholesale replacement of the entire ruling elite, for while former colonels might become generals after revolutions, the overall elite change little. Just look at the Soviet Union: as of early 2016, only four of all leaders of post-Soviet States are neither former Soviet-era officials nor officials’ children.
This is not the case in North Korea, however, since the existence of a rich, free and highly seductive South Korea means that any serious internal disturbance there will likely result in regime collapse, soon followed by absorption of the North by its rich twin state.
In other words, unlike a majority of dictators’ henchmen in other countries, North Korean elite members understand that in case of even a successful coup, the winners will face too high a risk of rapidly losing everything as a result of instability, a popular uprising and potential unification (a cross of East German and Romanian scenarios).
They need stability, and, if worst comes to worst, they also need nuclear weapons to safeguard themselves against foreign powers
Taking this into consideration, these people are significantly less likely to start conspiracies – even if they are indeed deprived of their usual nightly glass of Hennessey cognac. They need stability, and, if worst comes to worst, they also need nuclear weapons to safeguard themselves against foreign powers being involved with their domestic crisis, Libya style. Thus in order to ensure stability, and stay alive, they can survive without a daily glass Hennessy cognac.
TARGETING THE ECONOMY?
So let’s talk about a more realistic and tested model of sanctions – those which target the economy at large and whose (usually unstated) aim is to decrease the living standards of the general populace in order to create some discontent, hence putting the government under political pressure.
Such sanctions have been tried many times, from Serbia to South Africa. In most cases, they were not remarkably efficient, but there have been cases when sanctions seemingly made a great contribution towards desirable change. However, there is a tendency which is often overlooked; that sanctions have worked much better in countries which were democracies or semi-democracies, or where the common people had at least some opportunity to express their discontent with the government’s policy.
Indeed, such sanctions usually work in an indirect way, by making the lives of the common people more difficult, in some cases being without daily bread, in others, without the opportunity to buy a car every few years. All the pressure is built with the hope that discontent can crystalize into all kinds of opposition movements. And, if they are given the luxury of relatively free elections, citiznes become more likely to vote for opposition candidates, as was the case in Serbia and South Africa, for example.
However, this model is not applicable to North Korea.
North Koreans have no way to influence their government’s decisions or even register their dissatisfaction with government policy. They vote in elections with claimed 100% approval rate, and most of them cannot even think about any kind of open civil disobedience.
We have seen how it worked back in the late 1990s when the country faced a grave shortage of food and basic necessities. At least half a million people starved to death during the so-called ‘Arduous March’ of 1996-1999, but their deaths had little, if any, impact on government policy. Indeed, Kim Jong Il and his advisors did not abandon their goals of developing nuclear weapons and missile-based delivery systems, nor did they introduce reforms which, if applied correctly and timely, could have saved most –if not all – the lives lost during the famine.
At least half a million people starved to death during the so called ‘Arduous March’ of 1996-1999, but their deaths had little, if any, impact on the government policy
Of course, North Korean society has changed much since then, so widespread starvation might indeed lead to a revolution, for nowadays citizens are significantly less docile and much better informed about the possible alternatives. However, this is a risky bet, especially if we take into account that an economic crisis will kill many people before it can lead to a revolution.
This is the reason why economic sanctions so far have remained unsuccessful and the North Korean economy continues to perform at a modest, but acceptable level.
This is not to say that harsh economic sanctions do not make sense at all, for such measures might make sense if your goal is denuclearization at any cost. However, if your goal is to improve lives of common North Koreans, this is clearly not the way to go. Fortunately, due to the position of China and other reasons described above, sanctions are not going to drive the North Korean economy to the brink.
SOME SAD CONCLUSIONS
It is clear now the dominant mood in Washington and other world capitals is in favor of sanctions, so a sanctions-centered policy is likely to continue for a long time, perhaps many years to come. No amount of debate is likely to change this fact – especially since such a policy sells well with voters, creating a false and misleading impression that a principled and morally correct stance has been taken, and “something is being done” about North Korea and its nuclear threat.
Furthermore – as the experience of Cuba sanctions has demonstrated – even a long-term absence of political effect resulting from the sanctions regime is not going to discourage proponents, who will probably keep saying that “results are just beyond the corner”. In the case of Cuba, such figures were making claims like this for more than six decades, or a period of two generations.
Therefore, we have to accept that we are going to live in a sanctions-dominated world, and find ways to encourage desirable changes within it, even when the environment is harsh and unproductive. But sanctions are not conducive for policies which could probably be significantly more successful, such as cultural and personal exchanges which familiarize North Koreans with the outside world and help them realize that they live in a remarkably inefficient and backward society.
While programs targeting refugees might still be compatible with sanctions, working with the still loyal subjects of the Kim family might be a lot more difficult. Unfortunately, academic and personal exchanges are usually frowned upon by hard-liners who tend to believe that such programs ‘reward’ the North Korean dictatorial regime by inviting their students – who will be scions of the elite – to study in Western schools or encourage other exchanges between North Korea and the outside world. This ability to nearly freeze exchanges and thus reduce the information in-flow to North Korea is a major negative side-effect produced by the excessive adherence to the sanctions regime.
However, as I have said, sanctions are likely to remain part of the American and, broader speaking, Western policy for the foreseeable future. So we have to live within this, unfortunately.
Main picture: NK News
As of late, the issue of sanctions has been at the front and center of all discussions regarding North Korea. Because of well-founded disappointment in the ‘soft-line’ approach – centered around negotiations and mutual concessions – an unavoidable result has emerged for many: that sanctions are now “the only game in town”.Despite this recent shift in opinion, I cannot be
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.