When people talk about sanctioning rogue regimes, it is pretty standard to claim that such measures exist not to punish the good regular people of the country, but to penalize its elites, the ones allegedly responsible for the state’s wrongdoing and bad decisions.
These statements resonate well with the dominant, if somewhat hypocritical, mood of our times. Long gone are the days when a successful leader would advertise in beautifully written cuneiform signs exactly how many prisoners of both sexes his brave soldiers had impaled and skinned alive after a victorious military expedition.
Nowadays, one is supposed to pretend that the goal of a righteous war is to get rid of a bad government without seriously damaging the common people. The same logic is applied to sanctions. However, such claims reek of hypocrisy. Sanctions, if they work, often do so exactly because they provoke discontent among the common population.
But let’s assume for the moment that it is possible to design a sanctions regime which will indeed target North Korean decision makers, making their lives far more difficult.
For the sake of argument, we can for the moment ignore the question of whether such a hypothetical sanctions regime has any noticeable impact on the living standards of the average North Korean – what is important for us is if it influences the rich and powerful, the “top 1%” who are, allegedly, the target of the policy.
Sanctions, if they work, often do so exactly because they provoke discontent among the common population
SQUEEZING THE TOP
There have been, indeed, attempts to introduce such a regime. As an example, one can cite numerous bans on the import of luxury goods into North Korea. Efforts aimed at reducing North Korea’s access to foreign currency can be classified as another manifestation of the same policy.
It is assumed (wrongly, perhaps) that the hard currency the North Korean government receives is largely used to provide an inner circle of government supporters, the “top 1%” of North Korea’s population, with amenities and luxuries. It is also often claimed that, deprived of such luxuries, generals and party apparatchiks will turn against Kim Jong Un and will replace him with a leader who will jettison the nuclear program in order to regain the elite’s access to a reliable supply of Hennessy cognac and BMW sedans.
These ideas might work in many other countries, but in the peculiar case of North Korea, they are hopelessly misplaced.
That is not to say that North Korea’s top decision makers, the above mentioned top 1% (or should we say the ‘upper 0.1%’?) don’t like their Hennessy cognac and BMW sedans. They like all these decadent Western things very much. They are not ideology-driven zealots, but rather cynical and pragmatic manipulators, representatives of the third generation of the hereditary elite, who lost attachment to any ideology (with the possible exclusion of North Korean nationalism) a long time ago.
However, Korea’s peculiar situation as a divided nation ensures that these people are extremely unlikely to turn against Kim Jong Un, even if they lose access to the perks distributed by the government. Elite-targeting selective sanctions might work when they target a country whose very existence is not threatened by a tremendously successful, rich and powerful neighbor, whose constitution itself denies this particular country’s right to exist.
One can easily imagine some dictatorship in, say, Africa or South Asia in which the elite, suddenly deprived of luxuries, would indeed contemplate a coup or conspiracy and stab their leader in the back. It makes perfect sense because, contrary to popular mythology, in most cases revolutionary upheaval doesn’t result in a significant change in the elite.
THE THREAT OF THE SOUTH
A long time ago, a cynical Frenchman joked that “every revolution means a thousand vacancies.” Living in the revolution-ridden France of the 19th century, he knew what he was talking about. Following a successful insurrection, only a number of especially notorious individuals are replaced, and if they are particularly unlucky, even dragged to the lampposts.
Their replacements are usually normally not common men and women from the street, but simply more flexible (or, should we say, less principled) members of the old elite, usually from its second or third tier.
To put it somewhat differently, a revolution, coup or successful conspiracy often means many more opportunities for a colonel to become a general, while it seldom, if ever, gives statistically significant chances for the average common person to become a colonel, let alone a general.
If they are deprived of Hennessy they will drink soju, if they cannot afford BMWs they will ride Chinese-made Toyotas
North Korea, as we have mentioned above, is different, and the difference is created by the existence of its ultra-successful twin state of South Korea. Seoul has never accepted the fact that North Korea exists (it is mutual, of course: North Korea also denies the right of South Korea to exist).
Technically, the entire North Korean state is described in the South Korean constitution as an “anti-government entity,” not much different from a band of mountain guerillas. The official position of the ROK is that, in due time, North Korea should be taken over by the South, even though in real life, few take this assumption seriously.
Perhaps from the point of view of the average North Korean, the prospect of being swallowed by the rich and democratic South doesn’t look particularly terrifying, even though the outcome might be less rosy than they believe. However, this prospect is definitely terrifying for the country’s decision makers.
Regime collapse is likely to result in massive turmoil, followed by either the establishment of a pro-Chinese puppet regime (seen by the North Korean elite as the preferable option) or the absorption of North Korea by the South Korean state.
The second option, which currently appears to be significantly more plausible, will be a disaster for everybody who is somebody in North Korea nowadays. These people will have little, if any, chance of staying in power.
Objectively, they have no chance of competing with the South Korean carpetbaggers, even if they are given somewhat privileged treatment in the post-unification country (an unlikely scenario). The loyal soldiers of the Kim family simply know too little about how the modern world and economy operates.
However, in all probability, they will not even be allowed to compete. They know perfectly well how they would treat the South Korean elite had they been able to achieve their long cherished dream of forced unification, and they don’t expect to be treated differently.
Their fears are probably exaggerated, but given how many people in a decisive position of power must have been involved with human rights abuses under the Kim family regime, one can suspect that even the most unbiased transitional justice administration will see large numbers of ex-officials removed from positions of power, and perhaps sent to tribunals.
This might be seen as a good news to many opponents of the current North Korean regime, both inside and outside the country, but such a prospect is not going to be cherished by North Korean decision makers themselves.
The loyal soldiers of the Kim family simply know too little about how the modern world and modern economy operates
At the end of the day, all this means that, compared to the elites in other countries in similar situations, the North Korean elite is likely to remain remarkably loyal to the current government – no matter what. They do not want to rock a boat they cannot leave themselves. A coup, even a successful coup, has a high chance of provoking instability which would quickly result in regime collapse and the absorption of the poor North by the rich South.
From the point of view of North Korean apparatchiks, generals and spymasters, the alternative to the loss of access to Hennessy is not a resumption of such access under a new leader, but a high probability of being hanged or thrown into a prison. These people believe that the loss of power will mean the loss of privilege.
Thus for the average North Korean general or a department head at the WPK Secretariat, the choice is obvious. If they are deprived of Hennessy they will drink soju, if they cannot afford BMWs they will ride in Chinese-made Toyotas, but they will not challenge the leader and they will not challenge his course because, at the end of the day, the continued stability and existence of a separate North Korean state is an absolute precondition for them not only staying in power, but surviving. They know this, and they will act accordingly.
This is not to say that sanctions might not have an impact. They might provoke a massive economic collapse, followed by famine which, in turn, will trigger a revolution (I leave to it readers to judge whether this is an outcome that is desirable or acceptable). They might even slow down North Korean missile and nuclear developments by creating logistical difficulties for the regime’s engineers. But one thing that sanctions are unlikely to achieve is serious internal discontent among the North Korean top elite.
These people will hang together, no matter what. They believe the alternative is to be hanged separately.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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