Why sanctions on North Korea don’t work

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South Korean President Lee Myung Bak made big news by announcing a new slate of sanctions against North Korea, including the cessation of all trade between the two Koreas. The steps are in retaliation for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, which more and more evidence shows was the result of a North Korean attack. “North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts,” Lee promised in a speech (which you can read here).

But will they? On the surface, South Korea’s measures look likely to add to Pyongyang’s misery. One expert, quoted in The New York Times calculated North Korea would lose some $250 million a year in revenues because of Lee’s sanctions. For an impoverished and isolated regime like Kim Jong Il’s, that’s big bucks.

The problem with such sanctions, however, is that North Korea doesn’t care if it is isolated and impoverished. And never will.

Lee’s sanctions may be painful, but it won’t matter. They still won’t change Pyongyang’s policies or behavior, just as decades of economic sanctions have failed to pressure the Stalinist leftover from seeking peaceful relations with Seoul and Washington or giving up its nuclear weapons program. The imposition of economic sanctions is predicated on the belief that the target government is concerned at least to a minor degree about its economy’s development or its populace’s well being. Kim Jong Il has shown again and again that he isn’t the least bit bothered by either. This is a man willing to let his people starve to death rather than alter a ridiculous political and economic system rigged solely to ensure the maintenance of his regime. Kim has shunned China-style economic reform, fearing, despite the prevailing evidence, that change could undermine Communist control. In fact, in recent years Kim has backtracked on the few, meager reforms he had allowed in a feeble attempt to restore full state dominance over people’s livelihoods. For example, he’s cracked down on the activities of private markets, which played a key role in alleviating hunger in the country, and is trying to revive the dangerously broken state distribution system. Such mindless actions put an already precarious population at severe risk of another famine.

With such a mindset entrenched in Pyongyang’s dark halls of government, economic pressure becomes meaningless. South Korea’s Lee has already cut off Pyongyang from most of the goodies his predecessors were handing out to Kim Jong Il under the well-intentioned but flawed ‘sunshine policy.” Upon taking office, Lee linked an expansion of economic exchanges to Pyongyang renouncing its nuclear weapons program and greatly reduced aid. Any positive results from those measures? Zero. 

Part of the reason Pyongyang can remain so recalcitrant is support from China. There is some evidence that China helps fill the economic holes created in North Korea when other countries withdraw. As economic ties with Japan and South Korea have dwindled in recent years, North Korea’s reliance on China has greatly increased. Some experts believe this enhanced economic activity is legitimate trade and investment; others see it effectively as aid. And don’t expect too much cooperation from China for economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Beijing’s geopolitical priorities haven’t fundamentally changed in the 60 years since the Korean War. China’s leaders fear a united, strong Korea and a U.S. ally pressed against its border. Nor does Beijing want to deal with the refugees and chaos likely created by a full-on North Korea collapse. So China will keep the gravy train running, giving Kim little incentive to play nice with the rest of the world.

But there is a cost facing Kim that he doesn’t seem to realize. For now, he’ll continue to squeeze the North Korean economy for as much as its worth, leaving his poor people with even fewer and fewer crumbs. But there will ultimately be a limit to that strategy, a point at which he can’t extract a drop more. Even level-headed North Korea watchers have started to believe the country is in a truly unstable position at this time. Measures like the ones announced by Lee Myung Bak may not have any immediate impact. But they do eat away at the long-term sustainability of the North Korea regime. Eventually, Kim Jong Il will “pay a price” for what he’s done to the Korean people.