Sanctions against North Korea: a hammer with no nails

Author: Joseph M. DeThomas, Pennsylvania State University

North Korea’s recent nuclear and long-range rocket tests appear to have created a policy tipping point. Opinion in the United States, South Korea and Japan has shifted away from a policy of ‘strategic patience’ towards one that employs additional sanctions to compel North Korea to reverse its nuclear weapons and missile programs. But we shouldn’t expect too much in terms of concrete results.

Korean People's Army Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho points to a map showing the line which separates the two Koreas in Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on 22 February 2016, in Panmunjom, North Korea. (Photo: AAP).

In the United States, Congress passed almost unanimously (with 96–0 in the Senate and 418–2 in the House of Representatives) a bill mandating new economic and financial sanctions on North Korea as well as on third-country entities that support Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. US Secretary of State John Kerry initiated a high profile campaign to convince China to support muscular sanctions against the North Korea in a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR).

Japan has tightened its policies, banning DPRK ships from its ports and further constraining remittances to North Korea. And South Korea has closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the last high profile symbol of the Sunshine Policy era. Despite Chinese complaints and foot-dragging, it appears that the UNSC will pass its first new sanctions resolution against North Korea in several years.

There are, of course, good reasons to impose additional costs on Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile programs. Its recent tests are in direct violation of existing UNSCRs and such violations of international law cannot be treated with impunity. It is important for other proliferators to see that the costs for violating key non-proliferation agreements are high. And sanctions should be used to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining outside technology or material for its nuclear weapons.

Inaction appears more dangerous than it did before. Experts now believe that North Korea is within reach of a viable nuclear arsenal. A recent study by the US–Korea Institute predicts that by 2020 the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal will grow from its current 10 warheads to somewhere between 20 and 100 warheads. A small number of those warheads mounted on delivery vehicles would be capable of reaching distant targets, including the United States mainland. This will create strategic strains on US allies in Asia.

While something needs to be done, acceptable actions are hard to come by in Washington. Negotiations with Pyongyang are anathema to the right and politically damaging to the sitting administration, which would face attacks for ‘appeasing’ North Korea during a presidential election year. South Korean President Park’s recent speech to the ROK Congress forcefully closed the door on dialogue on that front as well.  Military measures to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program look both infeasible and risky to all parties. Sanctions alone enjoy bipartisan support in Washington.

But is it realistic to expect sanctions to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs, or are we in a position equivalent to a carpenter with a hammer but no nails? If so sanctions would be able to make a lot of noise and do a bit of damage, but produce no useful outcome.

There are a number of factors that make it very difficult to rely primarily on sanctions in the North Korean case. The Kim regime can shift the pain of broad-based sanctions away from the elite; already vulnerable ordinary North Koreans are most hurt. And, unlike Iran, North Korea already has a nuclear arsenal and a nuclear strategy. Sanctions at this stage cannot prevent a nuclear North Korea.

China is the only country with real sanctions leverage on the North Korea as 75 per cent of all its foreign trade is with China. But China is hesitant to use this leverage. Even if China did agree to use its leverage, the response of the Kim regime (or its collapse) could precipitate a severe international crisis. Coercing China to pressure North Korea through US unilateral sanctions poses serious risks to the global economy and stability in Asia.

Until Beijing can be persuaded to use its leverage against Pyongyang, it seems very unlikely that sanctions can be sufficiently strong to force the Kim regime to halt its build-up of nuclear weapons. It may be necessary to respond to North Korea’s tests with sanctions, but we should not expect a fundamental change of course in Pyongyang. Instead the current round of sanctions, and the new allied military deployments in the region, should be used as a basis for the broader international community to persuade China to use its leverage with North Korea in the future. That future might appear after the US elections, when a new administration might be willing to revive negotiations.

Ambassador Joseph DeThomas is a Professor of International Affairs at the Pennsylvania State University. He previously served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation from 1999–2001 and as an advisor for sanctions in the US Department of State from 2010–2013.

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