As the new administration of American president Joseph Biden assumes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, a debate over U.S. use of sanctions is brewing. Many have noted that increasing the use of sanctions is a performative coercive tool: sanctions look “tough” without actually committing the U.S. to military force which is decidedly unpopular with U.S. voters after the Iraq War.
Sanctions are often criticized for failing to achieve identifiable goals—especially regime change—and for punishing the population rather than the target country’s elites. This essay is the second in a series defending sanctions on North Korea against these critiques. My first essay argued against the claim that U.S. or multilateral sanctions are impoverishing regular North Koreans.
The immiseration claim is only true in the general sense that sanctions restrict inputs into the North Korean economy, crippling North Korean growth and in turn reducing per capita income. This misses the much more important context of terrible North Korean political-economic decisions going back decades. The North Korean state, specifically the leadership around supreme leader Kim Jong-un, is far more responsible for domestic suffering. If Kim made different decisions—most obviously, spending less on weapons and more on human development—the lives of North Koreans would be vastly different. Also, there are humanitarian carve-outs from sanctions which the regime chooses not to utilize.
This argument against sanctions only works if we assume, bizarrely, that foreigners are more responsible for the well-being of the North Korean citizenry than the North Korean state itself. But there are also several arguments for sanctioning the North—and importantly, they are not to compel regime change (although that would be a great outcome). Sanctioning North Korea should not be oversold.
First, sanctions against the North express our moral disdain for the character of the regime. North Korea is not just another dictatorship. The U.S. may indeed overuse sanctions against less harsh regimes like Cuba, Iran, or Venezuela, but North Korea is in a different category. U.S. diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick famously argued that the U.S. could do business with authoritarian states but should keep its distance from totalitarian ones. North Korea is easily in the second character, and arguably the most Orwellian, repressive state in history. The definitive investigation of North Korea’s human rights situation is from the UN in 2014. The author of that report analogized North Korea and its gulags to Nazi Germany and suggested its elites be brought before the International Criminal Court. Human rights activists in my experience have argued that North Korea is more brutal than Afghanistan under the Taliban or ISIS. There are serious ethical issues to treating North Korea as a normal country, and much of the literature against North Korea sanctions steps around this.
Second, sanctions are in our strategic interest, because they constrict North Korean economic growth, which mirrors the trade controls the West pursued with the USSR and may soon do with China. If we give North Korea unfettered access to the global economy, it is highly unlikely the regime will direct the gains of that new access downward to the population. It is far more likely that they will buy weapons, materials for their strategic programs, and luxury goods for the elite. This just makes our problems with North Korea worse.
Third, sanctions on North Korea reflect the will of the international community and give teeth to its resolutions. Sanctions opponents often elide U.S. and multilateral sanctions on North Korea. The U.S. does indeed have its own sanctions on North Korea, but given how little economic interchange the two countries ever had, these sanctions do little. The sanctions which matter are the ones flowing from the United Nations Security Council.
The UNSC has passed nine resolutions, each unanimous, on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program since 2006. This means not only Western states, but China and Russia supported these sanctions. It is true that Chinese and Russian support is softer than that of countries like the U.S. or Japan, but they did vote for them—nine times. China and Russia share the world’s concerns for a runaway North Korean nuclear program. The U.S. may indeed be unnecessarily punishing Iran or Venezuela for ideological or even theological reasons, but there are pretty clear strategic reasons behind those on North Korea. If a sanctioned North Korea today has 50 to 100 nuclear weapons, how many might it have without the sanctions?
Four, North Korean sanctions (hopefully) deter other states from pursuing North Korea’s extremely reckless course—hellbent nuclearization regardless of global anxiety; gangsterish behavior like drug-running, counterfeiting, and overseas assassinations; extreme human rights repression; and, possibly, proliferation (a growing worry given the maturity of the North Korean nuclear missile program and the regime elite’s luxury goods demands). Sanctions are at least a mild discouragement to others of such behavior.
Fifth, sanctions are an actual punishment for the nuclear missile program itself. They do not slow the program that much apparently, but they likely retard it somewhat. And North Korea should face some manner of punishment for so blatantly blasting through one unanimous UNSC resolution after another on this issue. North Korea is indeed highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons offensively, but its control and doctrine over these weapons is opaque; its safety standards are similarly opaque; it signaled this January that it will build low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which suggests battlefield use; it stands outside even minimal safeguards and oversight (there are no inspectors or monitoring of any kind); it has a long history of provocations against its Southern neighbor and a similar history of selling almost anything overseas to raise money.
For all these reasons, the North’s nuclear and missile program is the scariest in the world and a worthy target if there is any for sanctions.
None of this means that sanctions are inviolable or unending. We might trade them away in a negotiation with North Korea for concessions we seek, such as inspectors or human rights improvements. But they are not simply the reflexiveness of the Washington foreign policy “Blob,” and to simply give them up in the ethereal hope of a breakthrough is an error.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.