Sanctions, food insecurity, and COVID-19 are seriously challenging North Korea’s internal stability. Given that North Korea is no friend of the U.S., simplistic reasoning would suggest that North Korea’s instability is a good thing for the U.S. Richard Nephew, Deputy U.S. Special Envy to Iran represented this way of thinking in his book. He measured the success of U.S. sanctions relative to the destruction they caused. The reality is more complicated, though. Hurt and some general sense of instability among our foes do not necessarily imply benefits for us. Rather, it is just the instability of our enemies' objectionable characteristics, policies, and approaches that would benefit us. Thus, instead of asking how stable North Korea is in general, I will ask how stable are North Korea’s dictatorship and dependence on nuclear weapons?
Decades ago Gary Hufbauer’s team and A. Cooper Drury found out that regime duress and the level of hurt sanctions cause, generally contribute to the success of economic coercion. This finding suggests that the maximum pressure that President Trump applied during his first year in office, and continuing U.S. sanctions, could destabilize the North Korean dictatorship and its determination to continue developing nuclear weapons.
Later, however, Jaleh Dashti-Gibson and his team found out that maximum hurt and original duress of the regime only manage to destabilize enemies further, whereas if sanctions intend to bring about more complicated outcomes than general destabilization, then more complicated methods are needed. Dictators are often insensitive to the suffering of their people. Thus, the hurt of sanctions will not persuade them from their military programs as Risa A. Brooks discovered. Democracy is not built simply by destroying a dictator and reliance on nuclear weapons is not destabilized by threatening or even destroying an autocratic ruler. New autocrats with even greater reliance on weapons tend to rise out of external pressure, threat and intervention.
To support the development of democracy, one may need to deny the dictator his best argument for autocratic practices: the justification based on an external threat. One may also need to support the middle class that will eventually challenge the dictatorial elite. Consequently, the hardship of economic decline and the COVID-19 epidemic that the sanctions have exacerbated, may have stabilized rather than destabilized North Korean dictatorship and commitment to nuclear weapons. This conclusion can be deduced from the findings of Seung-Whan Choi, Chali Luo, David Cortright, and George Lopez, suggesting that the autocracy of terrorist states is further stabilized by pressure that hurts people.
So far there has not been anything that has challenged the North Korean dictatorship. The North Korean regime has yielded in its nuclear program only when its energy safety and external defense have been secured without its own nuclear technology. According to former US Secretary of Defense, William Perry, North Korean nuclear facilities remained unused still in 1999, five years after the US-North Korean Agreed Framework had offered North Korea such safety. When President Trump was negotiating similar safety for North Korea almost two decades later, Kim Jong-un declared that “we have pledged to build a land of peace without nuclear weapons or a nuclear threat.” Pressure imposed by enemies has not worked on North Korea and this was to be expected as Daniel W. Drezner has shown. For the destabilization of dictatorship and nuclear weapons programs, one needs to offer stability for North Korean security without nuclear weapons and stability of democratic progress in absence of external threat.
Timo Kivimäki is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom.