“Sanctions don’t work until they do”—the art of pressuring North Korea

Talking options.
Talking options.
Image: KCNA via Reuters
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One thing about whether economic sanctions will work against North Korea: the experts disagree.

North Korea last Sunday conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, less than a week after sending a ballistic missile over Japan. The regime of Kim Jong-un last month rejected talks, saying it would never give up its nuclear weapons, which it sees as essential to its survival. That followed US secretary of state Rex Tillerson saying negotiations were possible, but only if Pyongyang abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

US president Donald Trump declared after the missile launch over Japan that talking to North Korea “is not the answer,” and yesterday (Sept. 7) he said a US strike on North Korea, while not inevitable, “would certainly be an option,” adding it would be a “very sad day” for the nation should it come to pass.

For now, Trump is giving stronger economic sanctions more time to work, and pushing for ones that are even broader and tougher. The UN began hitting North Korea with sanctions after its first nuclear weapons test in 2006, and then added to them over time in successive layers. With the missile launches accelerating in recent years, so too have sanctions, with a resolution last month banning outright the export of coal, iron ore, seafood, and other commodities.

Asked yesterday whether sanctions are effective against North Korea, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said:

“It’s a legitimate question… I can say that the pressure campaign is working. Now, when you see a test that took place on Sunday, you may think, goodness, that is not working. But that is not the case, and here’s why: It can take a long, long time for sanctions to work… It is not an overnight thing.”

The Trump administration now wants the UN Security Council to hit North Korea with an oil embargo and Kim himself with an asset freeze and travel ban. It also wants a ban on exported textiles and the hiring of North Korean laborers (essentially rented slaves) abroad. Pyongyang warned recently that any new UN sanctions would be met with “powerful counter-measures” and said Washington was aiming for war.

Last weekend, following the nuclear test, Trump suggested that the US might even stop doing business with any nation that trades with North Korea:

China, of course, is North Korea’s primary trade partner, and many quickly pointed out how unrealistic was the idea of the US stopping trade with China, from which it imported over $460 billion worth of goods last year. (Spiraling trade war and global recession, anyone?)

Nevertheless, US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin followed up this week by saying that if the United Nations does not put additional sanctions on North Korea, he’s already prepared an executive order for Trump to sign that would impose sanctions on any country that trades with Pyongyang.

“They’ll eat grass”

But not everyone believes such sanctions work. Russian president Vladimir Putin weighed in this week, saying sanctions will never work, no matter how tough they are. “They’ll eat grass, but they won’t abandon their program unless they feel secure,” he said. And cutting off oil would hurt “the regular people, like in hospitals,” he argued, not the regime that rules them.

China agreed that the UN should take more action against North Korea following the nuclear blast, but insisted talks with Pyongyang were necessary. Beijing and Moscow have unsuccessfully pushed a “freeze for freeze” plan involving North Korea stopping its weapons programs in exchange for the US and South Korea halting their large-scale military exercises.

Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, argues sanctions won’t work. In Kim’s position, he said to the New York Times (paywall), one would be unlikely to give up nukes if China joined others in ratcheting up the pressure to disarm: “The last thing you would do in that situation is give up your independent nuclear capability: the one thing you hold that they have no control over.”

He and others believe that sanctions, instead of forcing change through internal pressure, can instead harden positions in place.

And some think they might do worse than that in the case of nuclear-armed North Korea. As penned in the Atlantic by Graham Allison, former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?:

Perversely, as the United States pushes for tighter enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea, the cash-strapped regime has greater incentives to turn back to the nuclear black market… North Korea is known in intelligence circles as “Missiles ‘R’ Us,” having sold and delivered missiles to Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and others. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates said, the North Koreans will “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.”

North Korea has proven adept at avoiding sanctions, relying mostly on ships. Quartz spoke earlier this year to Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor at Angelo State University in Texas who’s written a handful of books on North Korea, about Pyongyang selling arms and military equipment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He noted:

“Everything that I’ve seen suggests that the majority of this stuff goes on ships. Ships are easier to hide. You wouldn’t think so. But aircraft have to file flight plans. Cargo and transport aircraft have to fly through air space… It’s much easier just to reflag a ship under some nondescript nation that nobody would think was carrying arms and send it to Syria.”

It’s hard to control what goes on at sea, and most people, spending their days on land, don’t give it much thought. That helps explain how shipping has chugged away for decades as one of the world’s most polluting industries—out of sight, out of mind—and how North Korea continues to skirt sanctions and conduct trade, including with many African nations.

The “most maligned tool”

South Korea, for its part, earlier this year elected a president, Moon Jae-in, who promised more engagement with North Korea. Kim’s escalating belligerence has made pushing that agenda harder for Moon, a former human-rights lawyer whose parents fled North Korea. But he’s continued to call for dialogue with Pyongyang, and this week he outlined a “New Northern Policy,” an initiative that aims to expand economic cooperation between South Korea, North Korea, and Russia.

Moon hopes such cooperation will bring about change in North Korea, a hope that harkens back to the policies of the last liberal South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, who was in office until 2008. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and the presidents who came after Roh who took a tougher position against Pyongyang.

Moon’s stance is creating strains (paywall) in Seoul’s relationship with the White House.

Sanctions do have strong support among some North Korea experts. Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor, noted in an interview with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he serves as Korea chair:

“Sanctions are the most maligned tool of diplomacy, because everybody says sanctions don’t work—until they work. That is, everybody said of sanctions against Iran, ‘Oh they’re not working,’ until Iran came to the negotiating table and a deal was made. And the same thing is the case for North Korea. Everybody will say sanctions don’t work, there’s lots of sanctions and they still don’t work. But when North Korea comes back to the table, that will tell us that sanctions have worked—but no one will admit that because then they’ll focus on the negotiations. So you just have to remember, sanctions don’t work until they do.”

The Trump administration has reportedly chosen Cha to be the next US ambassador to South Korea. If so, he’ll have a chance to see up close how sanctions play out on the Korean Peninsula.