The Ends of Sanctions on North Korea

By Blake Plante (PO ’19)

When reactionary sanctions are the international community’s only major response to North Korea’s dash for nuclearized ICBMs, it becomes essential to evaluate the possible results of sanctions on North Korea: is it likely that sanctions will prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear warheads? What comes next if sanctions fail? How should North Korea be engaged with if and when it has nuclear warheads?

On August 5th the United Nations Security Council voted 15-0 for sanctions (RES 2371) that are projected to reduce North Korea’s exports by $1 billion. Its current exports are $3 billion. U.S. National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster says “we are out of time” — “There is a military option. It’s not what we’d prefer to do.” Instead, the current approach involves calling on international community to “do everything they can.” These sanctions are the manifestation of that plea.

Sanctions have been our primary solution, and their success is questionable. When North Korea can still trade with a China that’s worried about a potential refugee crisis and wants to maintain a foothold on the Korean Peninsula, the largest effect of sanctions is simply to redirect North Korea’s trade. Its people clearly feel the impact of a weak economy—with an estimated GDP per capita of $1,700—but with a state-controlled media and few international imports, Kim Jong Un’s regime can control the information, products, and the ideas that get to people. Then, the poorer the country is, the more its people rely on government support. Sanctions are employed with the hope that eventually the people will no longer support their government. Is such an overturn possible, or is a continuation of Kim Jong Un’s regime inevitable?

The danger is that in case these sanctions—a continuation of UN sanctions to North Korea since 2006—don’t work, the Trump administration articulates no solution but that of expanding the conflict from the world versus Kim Jong Un’s regime to the world against the people of North Korea. Here, rather than relying on pressure of the people’s rejection of the Kim dynasty to catalyze a change internally, it appears our solution would rely on the elimination of the country’s regime and many of its people. The presence of nuclear weapons complicates both of these strategies.

It is reasonable to assume that North Korea’s purpose for developing nuclear weapons is to ensure the stability of its government. The weapon is capable of such sublime destruction that any actor holding nuclear weapons can threaten mutually assured destruction. North Korea would then be able to deter any extreme action against Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Therefore if sanctions are unsuccessful, then perhaps by the time the international community decides upon an alternative course of action, the window for change may be closed. That said, sanctions thus far have been unsuccessful, and the window may already be shut. According to U.S. intelligence officials citing a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency report, North Korea already has an arsenal of up to sixty nuclear bombs and claims to be capable of mounting miniaturized nuclear warheads onto its missiles—though this claim has not been independently verified. Analysts predict Kim Jong Un will have the capability to fit a nuclear warhead on an ICBM before Donald Trump completes a four-year term.

One possibility is that these new sanctions really do cripple the North Korean government to such an extent that regime-change occurs without the discharge of nuclear weapons. The natural question to follow would be, “what now?” Who will ensure that a benevolent government rises from the ashes of a regime that has tortured, starved, and sold its people? What country or countries will be responsible for the rehabilitation of what was North Korea? How can we ensure that the perils of the DPRK’s people and its antagonism of the international community end with Kim Jong Un’s regime? Further, will China want reunification of the Korean Peninsula if South Korea is backed by the United States, or will north and south remain divided?

A far more likely result is that despite economic instability, North Korea’s sieve will keep it on life support. Locked off from trade with the rest of the world, North Korea has sought a substitute in China, which now accounts for 83% of North Korea’s imports. So while it is probable that UN sanctions have had a substantial effect on North Korea’s economy, a glaring problem of sanctions is that unless universally applied, the target country will simply be able to take its trade elsewhere. Sanctions are, effectively, cutting the U.S., EU, Japan, etc. from trade with North Korea, without eliminating North Korea’s ability to trade. In fact, in 2016, North Korea’s economy grew at its fastest rate of its last seventeen years. If sanctions are supposed to lead to a solution to the conflict, the status quo seems to have been somewhat ineffectual in producing a change.

Perhaps now is a good time to start thinking about what should be done if we cannot stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Will we continue to squeeze North Korea, bully and berate it despite its potential threat? Will we find a way to get China to complete the cruel task of starving the people of North Korea by finally closing off trade, almost totally isolating the state?

The most reasonable course in the purview of a nuclearized North Korea may be to acknowledge the current regime, eliminate hard sanctions, and engage in trade. As Mark Bowden from the Atlantic concludes, because none of the options are good, acceptance that North Korea will eventually build ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads is how the current crisis “should and will most likely play out.” But acceptance is only a beginning. Building trade and diplomatic channels with North Korea would tie it together with the international community, no longer forcing it into the role of rogue actor. Pursuing a policy informed by Keohane and Nye’s theory of complex interdependence—tying North Korea and its fortunes inextricably with the international community—may be the best way to avoid a nuclear detonation. Consumption of international goods could mean, in time, a less radicalized country, less likely to strike out because the unknown other has become the known partner.

It would indeed mean the legitimization of an authoritarian regime, but the United States has already legitimized the Kim dynasty. The root purpose of pursuing nuclear weapons is to manufacture fear for all would-be attackers. Donald Trump’s recent threat of “fire and fury” and vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the U.S. or its allies are remarks in full compliance with the fear Pyongyang desires to produce. Trump’s statements concede that the threat of a nuclearized North Korea is not just real, but is such an existential threat as to require a promise of preemptive strike or mutually assured destruction. Soon it will be time to interact with North Korea no longer as a rogue nation that requires worldwide sanctions to prevent its nuclear capabilities, but as a nuclear capable nation for whom draconian sanctions would only serve to escalate tensions. A more permanent North Korea will need to be engaged with soft power, and this will mean the end of the most severe sanctions.

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