Why more UN sanctions on North Korea won’t matter

Why more UN sanctions on North Korea won’t matter

Competing global interests and North Korea’s economic isolation make UN sanctions ineffective as Pyongyang continues as it always does, and deja vu reigns.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed measures that would mean tougher sanctions for North Korea following a long-range missile test in February and a nuclear weapons test in January. The new resolution would mean mandatory inspections for all vessels going in and out of North Korea by member countries, banning trade in aviation fuel to North Korea, freezing the assets of and travel rights for certain individuals, and widening the embargo of small arms supplies.

In addition to the United Nation sanctions, South Korea has taken unilateral measures to further punish North Korea. This includes targeting 40 individuals and 30 entities for their links to North Korea’s weapons programs, as well as the shutting down of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Despite the clamp down on North Korea, it is highly unlikely that these sanctions are going to be effective in slowing down North Korea’s progress in developing its nuclear arsenal, or in coercing Pyongyang to change its behavior.

Learning from history

History demonstrates that economic sanctions tend not to work with North Korea. The United Nations in particular imposed sanctions on North Korea in 2006 when the regime conducted its first nuclear test. The UN subsequently strengthened sanctions on North Korea following provocations in 2008 and 2013.

However, given the most recent nuclear and missile tests, it is clear that the sanctions have done very little, if anything, to impact North Korea’s economy or slow down its WMD development.

History aside, basic logic would suggest that economic sanctions on what is considered the most economically isolated country in the world will garner minimal results.

China as the “X-factor”

In the past, China has been reluctant to fully embrace UN sanctions towards North Korea. Many analysts have deemed this new round of sanctions as “different” precisely because it has the full backing of China.

However, expectations stemming from this new found support should be tempered. Although it is true that relations between the two countries have soured since the passing of Kim Jong Il, nearly 90% of North Korea’s international trade is with China. The new UN sanctions only make it more difficult to trade, not forbid trade altogether.

For China, North Korea will always serve as a buffer zone between the mainland and the US military presence in South Korea. It is simply not in China’s interest to spark a collapse of the North Korean regime. China has very little to lose by having one foot on each side of the controversy.

China can join the international community in condemning and punishing North Korea while, at the same time, continuing to play a major role in keeping North Korea afloat in the midst of harsher sanctions. If anything, tougher sanctions make North Korea more dependent on China for its survival.

North Korea’s citizens to pay the price

Ultimately, the new sanctions may inadvertently hurt commoners more than the upper class in Pyongyang. While North Korea’s elite will have to do without some luxury goods, it would be naïve to expect any form of political revolution as a result.

For the elite in Pyongyang, the alternative to the Kim regime is a collapsed regime. A collapsed regime would mean an abysmal future for the North Korean elite, as the far wealthier South Korea absorbs the collapsed North. The elite would rather survive without a few luxury goods than see their comfortable lives relative to the commoners disappear altogether.

The sanctions will, however, likely lead to greater famine and starvation among the common people in North Korea. This will result in more defections and greater black market use and, as a result, greater numbers sent to labor camps.

Conflicting interests

For every North Korean provocation it has become standard protocol to condemn North Korea for their actions and then slap them on the wrist with sanctions. A large part of the reason it has been so difficult to deal with North Korea is because so many of the parties involved have different interests.

Just to name a few, the priority of the United States is nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, South Korea’s priority is reunification, China’s priority is to prop up a buffer zone, and Japan’s priority is its own security and curbing abductions. For this reason the Six Party Talks have been largely ineffective and inefficient in dealing with North Korea.

But if policymakers know that sanctions will not change North Korea’s behavior, then continuing with sanctions implies an attempt to encourage a regime collapse. However, when considering North Korea’s nuclear weapons, instability in the form of a hard landing is probably not the favorable outcome. The ensuing chaos of a collapse would make it difficult for US and South Korean forces to secure Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads. Furthermore, China would be faced with a major humanitarian crisis, with North Korean refugees flooding the border.

Ultimately, what the international community really needs to do is to reach a consensus on what the end game should be for North Korea. Until then, the third installment of the Kim dynasty will continue to create global déjà vu.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Sam Cho

Sam Cho works for a member of the United States Congress where he manages the foreign affairs, trade, and military portfolio. Prior to working for the member, he worked at the US Department of State as an analyst and for the Economic Section of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea on the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Sam holds an MSc International Political Economy from The London School of Economics (LSE) and B.A. in International Studies from American University.