Donald Trump has announced even more sanctions on North Korea, this time targeting anyone who does business there. His move comes hot on the heels of UN Security Council Resolution 2375, passed in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, which marks a new stage in the world’s attempts to squeeze the Pyongyang government.
The resolution takes what was already a tough sanctions regime focused on nuclear and military-related trade and tries to exert broader pressure on the country’s economy, embargoing North Korean textile exports, capping the dispatch of additional North Korean workers overseas, and limiting exports of refined petroleum and crude oil to North Korea.
The US mission to the UN claimed that these measures amount to the “strongest sanctions ever”. But the measures contained within sit at odds with a claim made in the resolution’s article 26, namely that the measures “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK”.
Many observers have been sceptical as to the extent to which these sanctions will even be enforced. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of more than a decade of multilateral sanctions against North Korea is that they have coincided with the country’s continued economic recovery following a catastrophic collapse in the 1990s. They have also coincided with the rapid expansion of North Korea’s foreign trade.
Many onlookers cite a single main reason for this: that China, by far North Korea’s most important bilateral trade partner, has failed to abide by sanctions over the years. But this has changed since the start of 2017. Beijing has by most accounts strictly enforced a ban on coal imports from North Korea, raising the chances that it will also stick to the broad restrictions in resolution 2375. If it does, the humanitarian impact could be very serious.
Restricting North Korean energy imports, for one, cannot but have an impact on the North Korean people themselves. A recent report by the Nautilius Institute argues that the military is likely to have access to considerable stockpiles of oil, even as ordinary North Korean citizens do not.
Similarly, the textile sector is a significant provider of jobs: the most recent North Korean census in 2008 showed that nearly 400,000 workers were employed in the textile manufacturing sector – and that was before the rapid growth of Chinese outsourcing to the North.
Though the confiscation of passports and restriction of movement of North Korean workers abroad have led them to be depicted as “slave labour” in the mainstream media, there is nonetheless competition among North Koreans for these jobs. Returning workers typically invest their earnings and bring back goods for sale in North Korean markets, thus fuelling a process of grassroots marketisation and the rise of an entrepreneurial class.
Clearly, then, the humanitarian concerns of the resolution cannot be taken seriously. Nonetheless, some would say that intense economic deprivation could drive the populace to rebel against the state. But is that calculation really so sound?
Tipping the balance
Because North Korea is the world’s lowest-spending nuclear state, the level of economic stress needed to halt funding to the country’s nuclear weapons programme probably cannot be applied without severe human costs. There is also no guarantee that even extreme levels of hardship brought about by effective sanctions will produce a popular North Korean revolution. During the mass starvation of the 1990s, for example, there were no recorded incidents of significant civil unrest and the regime seemed resilient.
An arguably more realistic justification for ever harsher sanctions is that they will shift the government’s cost-benefit calculations, to the point where the cost of the nuclear weapons programme is outweighed by the potential benefits of greater integration into the global economy. It’s fair to say, however, that the North Korean leadership is at best ambivalent about the notion of Chinese-style economic reform and “opening up”.
Meanwhile, we might expect sanctions to work best when they can exploit existing cleavages among a country’s various elites, and there’s scant evidence of any such cleavages at the top of the North Korean power structure, at least with regard to nuclear weapons. Without strong domestic opposition or significant cleavages among the elite, the impact of broad economic sanctions against North Korea may resemble the terrible human suffering caused by sanctions against Iraq – and it was in the end war, not sanctions, that brought that regime down.
Another problem is that if sanctions fail, they can in fact reinforce a regime’s illiberal characteristics, providing fodder for propaganda that rails against a hostile outside world. Furthermore, in his new year’s speech in 2015, Kim Jong-un spoke of the need to cure what he saw as the “import disease” and rely more on domestically produced commodities – not only strengthening the country’s resilience in the face of further sanctions, but intensifying its insular character.
To be sure, not all sanctions are ill-advised. But as the scope of multilateral sanctions is extended to target everyday North Koreans’ livelihoods, it’s crucial to ask whether this approach is likely to succeed. Given just how resilient the North Korean regime has so far been in the face of intense international pressure, the chances seem slim.