Sanctions against North Korea

Author: Andrei Lankov, ANU and Kookmin University

The ‘Sunshine Policy’ of engagement and unilateral concessions is dead. After the Cheonan sinking, all Seoul talks about is sanctions and pressure ― and this position finds some understanding in Washington.

But, it is unlikely that talk of tougher sanctions will actually produce tougher punishment against the North. In all probability the attempts to pressure Pyongyang will be quietly (or not so quietly) sabotaged by China, perhaps with some Russian support.

The United Nations Security Council votes to adopt a resolution imposing sanctions against North Korea June 12, 2009 in New York City.

This is disappointing for many Korean and American hardliners, but they should not be that upset. In the very unlikely case that a truly vigorous sanctions regimen was implemented, it would not succeed in influencing North Korea’s behavior. The peculiarities of the North Korean regime make it essentially immune to sanctions.

So, how does a sanctions regimen normally work? When a country is subjected to international sanctions, it does not mean that the leaders will suffer from malnutrition ― in all probability, their daily intake of caviar and cognac will not go down a lot, and they will still have fuel for their luxury cars.

Contrary to the lofty rhetoric of diplomats, in nearly all cases it is the ordinary citizens and lower reaches of the elite who feel the brunt of the sanctions.

Depending on the time and place this might mean anything from surviving for years on a diet of bare sustenance to a mere inability to buy a new car, but at any rate the people will not take the noticeable decline in their living standards lightly.

As a result, dissatisfaction begins to build up, and people start feeling bad about the policy which brought the sanctions upon them (and also toward the government which initiated such a policy).

This is bad news for the government. If a country has relatively free and fair elections, the chances are that the government will be voted out of power. In less liberal regimes, a revolution is a likely outcome.

And, last but not least, opposing factions within the ruling elite might seize the opportunity and use the public discontent to stage a coup. At any rate, a government which is too stubborn faces a very real risk of losing its power because of popular discontent.

However, this mechanism is clearly not going to work in North Korea. None of the above-mentioned scenarios of regime change can be realistically expected there.

Needless to say, the North Koreans do not vote ― well, they vote with a predictable 100 per cent approval rate for the sole candidate, appointed by the government long before elections.

A popular uprising is not likely either. In the late 1990s North Korea suffered a disastrous famine which killed an estimated half to one million people. To a large extent this was a result of government policy as they refused to implement reforms out of fear of instability.

But even the famine victims died quietly, with little, if any, resistance. The North Korean population was too terrified and disorganized to stage any efficient resistance movement. The North Koreans were largely unaware of available alternatives to their regimented existence. Nowadays the situation has changed to some extent, but not that much.

In other words, the North Korean political system does not receive feedback. The economic prosperity and even survival of the population is not high on the regime’s agenda, and the population itself has neither violent nor peaceful means to influence the government policy.

It seems that sanctions supporters pin their hopes largely on a coup orchestrated by the dissatisfied elite. Their logic asserts that Kim Jong-il uses his funds to bribe top officials, providing them with cars, hi-tech gadgets and luxury goods.

If they do not get these giveaways, they will become resentful of Kim Jong-il and his policies and will probably demand changes or even stage a coup ― in order to have a reliable supply of Hennessy.

This logic would probably work in some Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s where the change of the dictator would not lead to a collapse of the entire system, so ambitious colonels were always looking for an opportunity to get rid of the aging generals. But this is not the case in North Korea.

The North Korean leaders understand that any attempt to rock the boat is dangerous. A sight of disunity at the very top might send a dangerous signal to the hitherto docile and terrified populace, and the collapse of the entire system becomes a probability (East Europe of the early 1990s demonstrated once again how sudden revolutions can be).

The god-like status of the Kim family complicates the situation further. The top leaders might have a more realistic view of the dictator, but they understand that for the populace the sight of a god being removed from power will come as a huge shock. After that, the people might become ungovernable.

Also, unlike most other countries, North Korea is a part of a divided nation, and an outbreak of instability there might bring about unification with the South ― the ultimate nightmare of the present day elite. If that happens, the top officials and generals have no chance of keeping their privileges, and they are seriously afraid of being prosecuted for their past misdeeds.

It is not incidental that Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il’s father and founder of the regime, in the early 1990s made sure that all members of his entourage watched the footage of the execution of Ceausescu, a Romanian strongman who was the closest analogue to the Kims, and the violent Romanian revolution.

His message was: if I am removed from power, you will lose everything, including, probably, your lives. The message was not lost, more so since it appears to be correct.

So, the North Korean generals and dignitaries will be happy to survive on a reduced amount of Scotch whisky given that the most likely alternative seems to be a lifelong survival on prison rations ― or worse. Kim Jong-il is seen by the elite as a guarantor of stability, and therefore, nobody will challenge his supremacy.

Thus, even if by some unlikely miracle China sincerely joins the sanctions regimen and puts serious pressure on North Korea, the immediate result will be neither revolution nor coup, but simply a dramatic increase in the mortality rate ― or in other words, a lot of dead farmers.

Perhaps some breaking point exists and can even be reached if sanctions are applied systematically and for a long time, but this breaking point seems to be too many corpses away.

Fortunately for the average North Korean, this appears unlikely to happen anytime soon. Driven by fear of instability (and decisively unenthusiastic about unification) China does not want to see North Korea cornered, and will not allow any efficient sanctions to be applied.

Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, and an adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.