is one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. It has been subject to US and international for more than 70 years. Those have come in three overlapping waves, first as a result of the Korean War, then in response to its development of , and finally to roll back that program as well as activities such as counterfeiting and cyberterrorism.
Thesehave contributed to isolating from the rest of the world. The country has not entirely welcomed this isolation. Despite longstanding suspicions of outside influences, has shown considerable interest in engaging with the West and with the global economy more generally. Economic have severely limited this interaction.
It’s Time to Act, Not React, on North Korea
There is currently little political support in thefor lifting against . Despite claims to the contrary, the Biden administration has settled into the same de facto policy of “strategic patience” adopted by the Obama administration. The new administration has not even reversed the Trump administration’s redesignation of as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In general, the US views economicas a tool of leverage to bring back to the negotiations table around its program. The experience with Iran, for instance, suggests that if the pain of economic proves sufficiently high, a country will be more willing to restrict its program. Sanctions can then be reduced in a phased manner as part of a deal like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But economichaven’t played that role with . They didn’t deter from pursuing a program, nor have they been subsequently responsible for pushing it toward denuclearization. Unlike Iran, has been under for nearly its entire existence and it doesn’t have a strong international economic presence that can be penalized. It has been willing to suffer the effects of isolation in order to build what it considers to be a credible deterrence against foreign attack.
USpolicy has demonstrably failed. Is a more credible policy possible or likely?
The Range of Sanctions
There is some controversy over whether is the most sanctioned country in the world or only the fifth on the list. This debate, stimulated by a report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has revolved around a single point. If isn’t the most sanctioned country in the world, then there is room to apply even more against it.
Even if the US andhave practically no interaction — no diplomatic relations, no commerce, few informal ties — some political actors in Washington would still like to pile on additional against . It’s unclear what purpose these additional would serve: purely punitive, one more stick to push back to negotiations, or an effort to precipitate some form of regime change.
Before addressing the utility of the current different categories of prohibitions that the US and the United Nations have adopted against . In addition, South Korea, Japan, Australia and the European Union have imposed their own against the country.regime, let’s take a look at the
Economicagainst cover trade, finance, investment and even North Korean workers in foreign countries. The earliest of these were imposed by the after the Korean War of 1950-53, when Washington imposed a total trade embargo on and also froze all North Korean holdings in the . In the 1970s, the US tightened these restrictions by prohibiting the import of any agricultural products that contained raw material from . The also prohibits any exports to if they contain more than 10% of US-sourced inputs. There are some minor humanitarian exemptions to these .
Between 2004 and 2019, in the wake of the failed Agreed Framework of the Bill Clinton era, Congress passed eight bills that further restricted economic and financial interactions with. On the financial side, the US has effectively blocked from participating in the American financial system but more importantly from engaging in any dollar-based transactions. Secondary target any countries that conduct business with , which further limits the country’s access to the global economy.
Becauseremains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, it does not enjoy sovereign immunity from prosecution for certain acts such as torture and extrajudicial killing. The is further obligated by the stipulations of this regulation to oppose any effort by to join the IMF or World Bank.
A rather lengthy list of individuals and entities have been singled out for , from high-level officials and directors of banks to trading and shipping companies to specific vessels and even non-Korean business people.
The freeze on the assets of designated individuals and entities, prohibit joint ventures with these prohibited entities and restrict cargo trade with .is not alone in imposing against . The UN Security Council has passed about a dozen unanimous resolutions that ban trade in arms, luxury goods, electrical equipment, natural gas and other items. Other impose a
Japan has also imposed reports Eleanor Albert., largely as a result of North Korea’s missile and tests. “These measures freeze certain North Korean and Chinese assets, ban bilateral trade with , restrict the entry of North Korean citizens and ships into Japanese territory, and prohibit remittances worth more than $880,”
South Korea, Australia and the EU also maintain their ownagainst the country.
The Problems With Sanctions
Regardless of whetheris in fact the most heavily sanctioned country in the world or whether there is room to levy even more against , the obvious conclusion is that have not worked to change the country’s behavior. If anything, have achieved the opposite effect.
In the face of a hostile international community,became ever more convinced of the necessity of building a program. Once it acquired those weapons, it has decided that they represent the single most important deterrent against foreign intervention. On the economic front, has forgone the benefits of formal participation in the global economy and has developed various strategies to raise capital through black-market and grey-market activities.
coverage of a UN assessment, “In the first nine months of 2020, ‘exceeded by several times’ the annual 500,000-barrel cap on sanctioned imports by receiving at least 121 shipments of refined petroleum products. The panel also found that exported 2.5 million tons of coal during the same months via at least 400 shipments through Chinese territorial waters.”also routinely evades . On the energy front alone, according to Arms Control Today’s
The dream of a “perfectregime” that chokes off all economic interactions with is illusory as long as there are actors willing to engage the country. China, because it does not want a collapsing power on its borders, is willing to keep its fraternal ally on life support. Despite this design flaw, advocates are always coming up with a better mousetrap. They offer “smart ” and “targeted ” to direct punitive measures at those in power. They propose new enforcement mechanisms, like the Proliferation Security Initiative, to ensure more effective implementation of . These are often very sophisticated initiatives. But still, the mouse avoids the mousetrap.
The expectation thatwill eventually surrender its program or experience some form of regime change also flies in the face of the evidence of 70 years of experience. If has defied these expectations for seven decades, why should we expect that capitulation is right around the corner?
Not only havefailed to achieve their intended effect — a non- , a more law-abiding regime — they have produced the opposite. In addition to acquiring , has been forced to rely on obviously illegal means to generate funds — smuggling, counterfeiting, traffic in illegal products. It has further concentrated power in the military. It has been further cut off from international contacts that could potentially expose the country to other ideas and practices. The result has been a much more isolated, parochial, defensive, militaristic country.
Sanctions, in other words, have produced a vicious circle. The tighter the, the more becomes a country that requires sanctioning.
The current US approach is transactional. Ifpromises in negotiations to behave a certain way and then follows through on its promises, the US will reduce . On several occasions, this approach has produced certain results. The US lifted certain as part of the Agreed Framework in the 1990s, then as part of the six-party talks in the 2000s. But any progress along these lines was eventually reversed.
It’s not that the logic of this transactional approach is flawed. Rather, there is a deep divide between theand that renders such an approach problematic.
First, there is a profound asymmetry. USpolicy is directed by a number of different actors — the president, Congress, the Treasury Department. And some of these follow from or otherwise contribute to international , requiring different authority for their suspension.
Butis extremely hierarchical. The leader has unilateral authority to direct policy, even overruling the military if necessary (as was the case, for instance, in the promotion of the Kaesong Industrial Complex over military objections that the territory was strategic in nature and should not be given over to an inter-Korean economic project). The must abide by the legal requirements embedded in policy and legislation; the North Korean leader can, with a simple edict, create the law.
Second, there is a gap of trust between the two countries. Both sides have made promises that the other side argues have not been upheld. This makes any future promises that much more difficult to be believed. North Koreans generally don’t appreciate the disputes that arise between the executive and legislative branches in the— as they did over the implementation of the Agreed Framework provisions in the 1990s — and view the breach to be a result of bad faith rather than politics.
Third, there are certain assumptions in the transactional approach that are not shared. Essentially, the US viewsas a mule that can be pushed one way or another through a policy of “carrots and sticks.” Sanctions are a big stick; removal of is a big carrot.
Butviews itself as an autonomous, independent actor. Self-determination is one of the most important elements of the country’s ruling philosophy. It does not look kindly upon foreign entities that treat it as an unreasonable animal that must be pushed and pulled. The transactional nature of the negotiations around the country’s program fails to take into account this fiercely independent approach.
It is not easy to do away with US article for The Diplomat, “none of the economic against have a sunset clause, so they are difficult to amend or remove.” Presidential waivers are possible, but presidents are generally reluctant to invoke such waivers because of congressional pushback and the generally negative perception of in US public discourse.against . As Jessica Lee points out in an
The most immediate task is to consider a range of exemptions to the current argued for such a relaxation of the regime in order to safeguard the livelihoods of ordinary citizens.to ensure that the international community can help avert a humanitarian disaster in . Even the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has
Beyond the humanitarian crisis, however, the US should consider more radical approaches tothat go beyond .
Donald Trump, the former US president, was willing to consider this more radical approach, in part because he was more taken with grand gestures and foreign policy spectacles than with day-to-day political calculations. He attempted the top-down approach of engaging directly with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. But Trump frankly didn’t understand the terms of engagement and, when frustrated by North Korea’s apparent lack of reciprocity, fell back on the default policy of applying even more. The virtue of Trump’s approach was that it established, at least on the surface, a measure of symmetry between the two sides: two “deciders” sweeping aside the procedural requirements to hammer out a deal. But, in the end, Trump wasn’t willing to abandon the underlying carrot-stick mentality.
No US administration has seriously considered the “Chinese option” of undertaking a break-through agreement withcomparable to the Nixon-Kissinger approach of the 1970s. Such an approach would reduce and eventually eliminate economic in order to facilitate North Korea’s engagement with the global economy in the expectation that it will become a more responsible global actor, which China has in fact become (certainly in comparison to its Cultural Revolution days). Constrained by the rules of the global economy, nudged away from illegitimate and toward legitimate economic activities, and cognizant of the importance of preserving new trade ties, would still possess weapons of mass destruction — as well as a considerable conventional military — but would be less likely to consider using them.
The US took such a radical move with China in the 1970s in order to gain a geopolitical edge with the Soviet Union. It could do the same withtoday in order to gain some leverage over China.
The major objection, of course, is that the US would unilaterally give up a powerful tool of influence by removingon . But, as has been detailed above, haven’t been effective. Instead of more coercive sticks, perhaps the should consider better carrots.
To persuadeto reduce its program, the US should consider offering something akin to the Agreed Framework but substituting renewable energy for the civilian power plants of that deal. With Chinese and South Korean cooperation, the US could offer to help leapfrog to an entirely different economy independent of fossil fuels. It was, after all, the huge jump in energy prices in the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped to precipitate North Korea’s agricultural and industrial collapse, from which it has never really recovered. A new energy grid that eliminates the country’s dependency on imported energy would be of great interest to the leadership in .
The current standoff betweenand the rest of the world is based on two fundamental misconceptions. believes that its program provides it with long-term security. And the rest of the world believes that economic will eventually force to give up that program. The two misconceptions have generated a series of failed agreements and failed negotiations.
The US, in particular, must consider instead a different kind of approach based not on bigger sticks, but better carrots that can givewhat it really wants: engagement with the global economy on its own terms based on a stronger and more self-sufficient domestic economy. A more prosperous that is no longer backed into a corner would be a benefit to its own citizens, to the overall security of the Korean Peninsula and to the international community more generally.
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.