It's Time to Seek Real Ways to Shape North Korea

 A Socialist statue on the Juche Tower, Pyongyang. Wikimedia Commons/Gilad.rom

Sanctions are popular, but they won’t stop Kim Jong-un.

On July 6, the United States announced the sanctioning of Kim Jong-un over human rights violations that took place within North Korea. North Korea responded by stating that the United States had crossed a red line and had declared war on the Democratic Republic of North Korea. As tensions continue to rise within the region, the question of whether United States sanctions have any effect on North Korea is brought into the spotlight. In addition, if these sanctions are not effective, why does the United States use them as their primary diplomatic tool? These issues should be addressed with the current and future administrations when dealing with the issue presented by North Korea.

To examine the effect of sanctions on North Korea there are two considerations to take into account. First, the effect of sanctions on North Korea’s trade, and second, the systemic effects of sanctions on North Korean governmental actions? The latest data shows that North Korea’s imports and exports have grown steadily since 2009. Since the first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea’s trade volume has increased over twofold; from $3 billion to $7.6 billion. Also, during that time, North Korea’s exports tripled; from $1 billion to $3.1 dollars. Compared to Iran, whose economy shrank by 9 percent while under sanctions, as well as oil exports falling from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.1 million barrels a day over a two-year span. From this data, it is clear that sanctions on North Korea are not having their desired economic effect.

Politically, U.S. and UN sanctions have made the North Korean government stronger. U.S. sanctions are used by Kim Jong-un as a rallying cry for the North Korean people to support their supreme leader. This is not a unique response from authoritarian leaders: it is well documented that authoritarian regimes can take pressure off themselves by using sanctions as a scapegoat. Not only is Kim using sanctions as a scapegoat, but he is also using sanctions as a justification for ramping up North Korea’s nuclear program. The most recent United Nations Security Council noted, “Sanctions have not prevented the DPRK from gradually improving and expanding its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.”

So if sanctions have not been effective toward North Korea, why does the United States continue the use sanctions? The answer is simple: politics. When a country, like North Korea, commits a violation of international norms the United States feels like it must react in a way to deter future states from doing the same. But what if the state in question has not had economic relations with the United States since 2012? Is the announcement of more sanctions actually going to lead to a change in state behavior or is the call for sanctions political grandstanding? The United States’s use of sanctions on North Korea has mainly served as political grandstanding. The continuing call for sanctions against the DPRK will win political points at home, but will not lead North Korea to denuclearize or to cease their human rights violations.

The next president should think long and hard about the U.S. strategy towards North Korea. Overall sanctions have not worked to deter North Korea but are continually being used as the diplomatic tool by the United States. If change is going to happen within North Korea the United States will have to consider a different policy, one that might not win them points domestically, but one that could actually lead to real change on the Korean peninsula.

Shawn McFall has written about U.S. policy toward North Korea in The Hill and E-IR.

Image: A Socialist statue on the Juche Tower, Pyongyang. Wikimedia Commons/Gilad.rom