Following that remarkable show summit in Panmunjom, we can expect that, in the near future, American and North Korean diplomats will begin talks which will determine exactly what kind of concessions the two sides will make in order to achieve the expected (and hoped for) deal.
For the U.S., the UN Security Council sanctions, especially sectoral sanctions, are its major leverage. While the sanctions were introduced by the UN, they cannot be removed without the explicit approval of the U.S., which has veto power on the Security Council.
However, it would be difficult to reintroduce the sanctions if they are removed, due to the current position of China and Russia. So the U.S. is understandably reluctant to part with what is, essentially, their only weapon in the North Korean issue.
The official line from Washington is that sanctions should remain in force for the time being – but for how long? Many people say that sanctions should not be removed until North Korea surrenders all of its nuclear weapons and equipment. Since the North Koreans will never do this, then, the sanctions will remain in place indefinitely.
Indeed, it seems that support for the status quo is also increasingly common among South Korean conservatives.
Their calculations are simple and seemingly logical. They understand that the existent sanctions regime is unlikely to undermine the DPRK economy in the short to medium term – especially now, when China appears increasingly willing to provide North Korea with generous aid.
However, existing UN “sectoral sanctions” make significant economic growth nearly impossible, and, supporters of the sanctions argue, this is what is going to matter in the long run.
Sooner or later – maybe, five or even ten years down the road – North Korea’s government will discover that while the economy has been stagnating the gap between North Korea and its neighbors, already yawning, kept getting even larger. The ‘low orders’ will become frustrated and start asking increasingly uncomfortable questions. The gradual spread of information from the outside world will also have an additional impact.
Therefore, according to supporters of the sanctions, the North Korean government will start to face the growing possibility of domestic discontent.
At this point, the expectations of sanctions supporters begin to vary. Some of them (perhaps, the majority among the South Korean conservatives) hope that such an internal crisis will push North Korea to complete denuclearization, or alternatively, undermine the regime and provoke a pro-unification, pro-Seoul revolution.
On the other hand, others don’t dream of a revolutionary unification and are even afraid of such an outcome: they understand that a violent revolution in North Korea is going to be very costly for the South.
Therefore, these people hope that Kim Jong Un, or whoever happens to be in charge at the time of a sanctions-induced crisis, will implement beneficiary reforms. Such reforms, it’s hoped, will lead to a significant reduction of North Korean nuclear potential, as well as to a speedy transformation of North Korea into, say, a smaller version of China.
I have to admit that there is a great deal of persuasive logic behind the arguments outlined above, but there are also serious reasons to question this vision of the future. If the sanctions regime lasts for years, in this author’s view, there may be a great deal of undesirable results.
Arguably, the most important of these results will be a noticeable deterioration of North Koreans’ living standards. The North Koreans, already by far the poorest people in East Asia, will become even poorer.
However, such considerations are not all that relevant in the tough world of grand politics, so we should perhaps pay attention to the other undesirable consequences of the indefinite extension of sanctions.
There are good reasons to expect that the extension of sanctions until an uncertain point in the future will make things worse, not better
First of all, the perpetuation of the sanctions regime will be bad for political stability in Korea and in Northeast Asia in general.
If the North Korean government sees that its domestic support is indeed deteriorating under pressure from sanctions, and that the United States, the key player in this game, shows no willingness to make concessions, Pyongyang might resort to its old and well-tested brinksmanship tactics.
As we have seen many times before, when North Korean decision-makers find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation, or badly want something, they often reacted by manufacturing a crisis and then extorting concessions as a reward for their willingness to return to the pre-crisis situation.
If sanctions continue, such a strategy will again appear logical and attractive. There is no reason to believe that the North Korean government will remain idle, passively waiting for the sanctions to start biting.
Most likely it will resume the highly aggressive pursuit of even better nuclear weapons and delivery systems. One should expect more thermonuclear tests, and more ICBM launches – including, perhaps, even such highly provocative things as, say, the once promised missile ‘bracketing’ of Guam, or launching ICBMs into the South Pacific.
Apart from nuclear and missile tests, North Koreans can also use more conventional methods for raising tensions, making the situation for its neighbors much tenser – once again, we have seen this happen so many times.
Second, the continuation of sanctions is likely to encourage further advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
It’s often argued that sanctions and economic crisis will deprive the North Korean government of funds which it needs to advance its WMD and missile program. But this is patently not the case: the major breakthroughs were achieved in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the country was facing a disastrous famine.
Nothing that dramatic will happen nowadays – the situation might deteriorate, but it will be much less pressing if China indeed is going to keep North Korea afloat, as seems highly likely. People will at least not be dying because they will get some Chinese food aid, while the government will be able to use the available resources to build more powerful nuclear weapons and better missiles – as it did in the 1990s so successfully.
Every year, every month of sanctions means more and better North Korean nuclear arms being designed, produced, and deployed. Sanctions relief would, of course, include some measures which will limit (perhaps, to a large degree) North Korea’s ability to perfect its nuclear potential. Without such limits, the North Koreans will advance full speed –especially, since they will have valid political reasons to behave in such a way.
Given that further strengthening of the UN-imposed sanctions appears pretty much impossible due to the current position of China and (to some extent) Russia, the North Korean government will have little to lose from such seemingly risky behavior. Every year without any agreement will mean dozens of new warheads being delivered to North Korea’s storage facilities.
Every year, every month of sanctions means more and better North Korean nuclear arms being designed, produced, and deployed
Third, sanctions are likely to set back the economic transformation of North Korea and its slow switch to a market economy.
Supporters of long-term sanctions often argue that the emergence of the North Korean market economy in the 1990s itself was a byproduct of the economic difficulties which the country experienced back then. So, they insist, more economic difficulties will actually make North Korean decision-makers even more willing to tolerate and somehow encourage market activities.
This may be the case, but there is a serious flaw in the argument.
It seems that by the time of Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power in the early 2010s the North Korean private economy had more or less reached the limits of what would be possible without serious institutional reforms. Areas which could be privatized without much direct government involvement – like coastal fishing, the restaurant industry, haulage, and the like – had largely been privatized by the early 2000s.
Further growth requires institutional reforms. The North Korean market economy cannot grow further without some changes in the country’s legal structure, without the introduction of institutions which make the modern market economy possible.
Kim Jong Un, somewhat of a reformer himself, began such introductions in 2012, and the reforms have paid off by delivering significant economic growth and corresponding improvement in the wellbeing of the population – until the tightening of sanctions stopped this growth in 2017-18.
If the sanctions regime lasts for years there may be a great deal of undesirable results
However, if full-scale sanctions are maintained for years, the country is likely to slide back into mobilization mode. The sense of immense pressure from outside will empower North Korean conservatives and probably will make some key North Korean personalities, including Kim Jong Un himself, move away from their support for the reformers and their policies.
If what I hear from some of my sources is correct, this is actually happening already.
After all, sanctions, especially on the scale we are talking about now, are of immediate concern, and nobody expects that serious economic reforms will be introduced in a time of acute crisis. Even though small scale, low profile market activities might indeed thrive under sanctions, they are not what North Korea needs now.
Therefore, continuation of the sanctions regime is likely to stop or slow down the changes that some of the supporters of sanctions sincerely want to promote.
All things considered, there are good reasons to expect that the extension of sanctions until an uncertain point in the future will make things worse, not better.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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