North Korea sanctions punish the whole population

Author: Emma Campbell, ANU

Herbert Hoover once said of sanctions that ‘they bred “incurable hatreds”’. On a recent trip to the DPRK those hatreds were much in evidence as our interlocutors blamed international sanctions (more commonly ‘US sanctions’) as the root cause of the North’s current woes. A recent UN report by the Honourable Michael Kirby on the ‘unspeakable atrocities’ faced by many prisoners in North Korea’s camps confirms what most followers of Korea already knew about the wretched regime. But life in the DPRK is tough for everyone except for a tiny Pyongyang elite. The sanctions regime in place to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program and to tackle the appalling human rights record now threatens to make the lives of the most vulnerable even worse.

Let’s be clear — responsibility for the DPRK’s current predicament lies squarely at the feet of the North Korean regime. The regime’s domestic policies have crippled the North’s economy and its belligerent behaviour appears to have exasperated even its purported ally, China. But that does not take the international community off the hook. This is a world of international rights and norms. When constructing policy toward the DPRK there is a responsibility to prevent a worsening of the plight of the North Korean people. It appears that the ongoing sanctions regime is failing in this basic humanitarian tenet.

The current sanctions have not only failed to curtail the nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses of the ambitious North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, they are also constraining the actions of humanitarian NGOs trying to carry out life-saving activities inside the DPRK. These essential humanitarian activities include the provision of nutritional supplements to malnourished children; the treatment of infectious diseases, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis; the provision of support to rural villages; and the delivery of basic medicines, such as antibiotics and pain relief.

Because of sanctions targeted at banks dealing with the DPRK, one European diplomat told me that humanitarian agencies had resorted to carrying large amounts of cash into the DPRK in order to maintain basic operations. The remittance of funds to UN agencies and embassies operating in North Korea is being hampered. Other NGOs, including the German humanitarian organisation Welthungerhilfe, have spoken openly about the impact of sanctions and are considering withdrawal from the DPRK because they are unable to carry out their projects. Even small individual gestures are being blocked — the Japanese government, for example, continues to tighten restrictions on the sending of gifts and financial support by Koreans living in Japan to their suffering relatives in the DPRK.

The sanctions regime against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait provides lessons for the contemporary case of North Korea. Certainly sanctions contributed to a weakening of Iraq’s military capacity as a result of the comprehensive trade embargo that was imposed in 1990. And it was Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to work with the UN to provide humanitarian relief that compounded the effect of sanctions on the general population. However, credible estimates suggest that over 200,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions regime. The regime also dramatically weakened Iraq’s social and economic system and inspired extreme antipathy toward the West. It is not a big leap to suggest that the long-term impact of these sanctions imposed by the international community added to the complexities of reconstruction and peace building following the 2003 US-led invasion.

While sanctions against the DPRK are proving more symbolic than effective in their current form, there is a case for some targeted sanctions around the North’s nuclear program and the leadership’s luxurious lifestyle. Indeed, the current sanctions were said to be targeted, or ‘smart’, but the broad reach of the sanctions regime, the determination to rigidly enforce these sanctions and the fear held by many institutions of even carrying out legal transactions with the DPRK is constraining the ability of humanitarian agencies to conduct life-saving activities.

Iraq has taught us that the potential long-term consequences of sanctions should be measured against any short-term gains. In the case of the DPRK those long-term consequences may include yet another generation of stunted children, communities facing starvation, increased criminality, environmental disasters and a drug-resistant tuberculosis epidemic.

History has also shown that sanctions may lead to increased sympathy for the incumbent regime. The feeling of embattlement can lead to a ‘rallying’ effect by a population. That belief, albeit fed by domestic propaganda, will become easier to cultivate as more NGOs find themselves reducing their operations as a result of the embargo. And so the international community, too easily cast as the cause of the DPRK’s woes, will eventually find itself at the receiving end of Hoover’s foretold ‘incurable hatreds’.

Dr Emma Campbell is a postdoctoral fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.

A version of this article was first published here by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.