Following the breakdown in US-North Korea talks in early October, there’s a danger that relations between the two countries might return to the state of crisis that had existed prior to 2018. This likely means a continued reliance on unilateral and multilateral sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to take concrete steps towards denuclearisation. However, as a recent report suggests, there is increasing evidence that sanctions are having a negative impact on ordinary North Koreans.
Though unilateral US sanctions have been in place since the time of the Korean War, multilateral UN sanctions were not imposed until North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. For the first decade, however, these sanctions were rather limited in scope, and indeed, they coincided with a period of relative economic recovery in North Korea. Much of this was enabled by the lax enforcement of the sanctions by China and, more importantly, by China’s economic boom and demand for North Korean exports of minerals, textiles, seafood, and labour. These growing exports provided North Korea with the foreign currency to import the Chinese goods that were sold in North Korea’s burgeoning marketplaces.
While these trends contributed towards a relative improvement in the livelihoods of ordinary North Koreans, the UN sanctions that were passed since late 2016 under the auspices of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign have explicitly targeted the economy upon which ordinary North Korean citizens depend upon for their livelihood. UN Security Council Resolutions 2321, 2371, 2375 and 2397 have collectively banned North Korean exports of anthracite, iron and iron ore, lead ore, seafood and textiles, prohibited new and existing joint ventures with North Korean enterprises, placed quantitative caps on the sales of crude oil, refined petroleum, and natural gas liquids to the country, and have prohibited new permits for overseas North Korean workers. The resolutions have also called for the repatriation of all North Korean nationals earning income abroad by the end of 2019. As a result, UN sanctions had come to target nearly all the sectors that had underpinned North Korea’s tentative economic recovery and, as such, contradict claims that the measures “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population.”
Unsurprisingly, the result is a sizeable decline in North Korea’s external trade. Exports to China, which account for the vast majority of the country’s external trade, fell from $US 1.65 billion in 2017 to just $US 195 million in 2018 — a massive decline of 88.2 per cent. Though a UN Panel of Experts has documented numerous instances of smuggling to evade sanctions, it is highly unlikely that this makes up for the dramatic decline in trade associated with those sectors upon which large numbers of North Koreans depend upon for their livelihood. South Korea’s central bank, the Bank of Korea, has also estimated that North Korea’s GDP fell from a growth rate of +3.9 per cent in 2016 to -4.1 per cent in 2018.
Sanctions have also negatively impacted the country’s already struggling agricultural sector. As a joint report by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme highlighted, recent sanctions have restricted the import of items essential for agricultural production, such as fuel, fertilizers, machinery and spare parts for equipment. This has negatively impacted irrigation and yields, reducing storage life and the availability of food during the lean months.
More anecdotal reports suggest that the ban on North Korean mineral exports has had a negative impact not just on miners and managers in the sector but on restaurant managers, transport operators, and sellers of consumer goods in coal-producing regions.
It is also reasonable to assume that the ban on textile exports has likely had an adverse impact on women’s livelihoods in North Korea, as 82 per cent of workers in the textile industry are women, according to the most recent census.
The banning of the dispatch of labor is likely to have increased the hardships faced by North Korean workers because, despite being exposed to conditions that come under international definitions of forced labor, workers pay bribes to gain access to these relatively better-paying jobs abroad.
Some argue that the goal of sanctions is precisely to cause economic stress in order to increase pressure on the regime or even to facilitate a process of regime change from within. However, even extreme levels of public hardship are unlikely to lead to a popular North Korean revolution. At the time of the mass famine of the 1990s, for example, there was little evidence of civil unrest. There is little reason to believe that the regime’s susceptibility to resistance from within has changed.
An arguably more realistic justification of sanctions is that they will cause the country’s leadership to reconsider its pursuit of nuclear weapons because it will be outweighed by the potential benefits of greater integration into the global economy. It seems clear, however, that without a radical shift in the country’s external security environment, the North Korean leadership is unlikely to forgo its nuclear programme for the sake of the short-term benefits that might be gained through the lifting of sanctions.
While some observers interpreted North Korea’s shift to diplomacy from the outset of 2018 and its demands for sanctions relief as evidence that “sanctions are working,” negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang quickly became bogged down in familiar and long-standing issues concerning the sequencing of concessions and measures. It appears that there has been relatively little substantive change in the negotiating positions and red lines of either country.
There similarly appears to be little scope for sanctions to exploit potential cleavages within the North Korean regime. Although analysts have long speculated about the existence of divisions in the regime between moderates and hardliners, actual evidence for such splits is rather limited, particular in relation to nuclear policy. Furthermore, the government of Kim Jong Un appears even more unified than that of his father, Kim Jong Il.
It has also long been recognised that sanctions can in fact strengthen the illiberal characteristics of a targeted regime. For example, they can reinforce the regime’s narrative of a hostile external environment, potentially producing a “rally round the flag” effect whereby foreign powers can credibly be blamed for domestic economic hardship. In this respect, it should be remembered that North Korea is a state that was born through the massive destruction and loss of life of the Korean War, and has since then been situated in a decades-long geopolitical standoff with both its neighbor South Korea and with the world’s preeminent military superpower, the United States. The regime’s longstanding narrative of the role of “hostile forces” ostensibly justifies for its domestic audience the development of nuclear weapons and provides, with some justification, an explanation of continued economic hardships.
As such, the monolithic nature of the North Korean state, the extent of its commitment to nuclear weapons, the weakness of country’s civil society, and the nature of its external geopolitical environment all suggest the unlikelihood of sanctions resolving the nuclear crisis.
Given the bleak prognosis for their success, there is an urgent need for alternative approaches to diplomacy with North Korea. Rather than expecting North Korea to agree to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear programme, diplomacy should be focused on addressing the security concerns of both Washington and Pyongyang as part of a staged process of mutual concessions. This would include addressing the unresolved nature of the Korean War that has underpinned the decades-long security crisis surrounding the peninsula, and by extension, Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. This was a goal that was expressed by both Koreas in the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean peninsula, signed on April 28, 2018.
In the meantime, it should be recognised that sanctions are causing unnecessary suffering on the people of North Korea, and thus are not consistent with the humanitarian principle that a country’s population should not be held responsible for the actions of its government.
In this respect, it is important to keep in mind the case of the comprehensive sanctions regime against Iraq, which reportedly caused the deaths of at least half a million children under the age of five who would not have died under the Iraqi regime prior to sanctions. Not only did that sanctions regime cause widespread human suffering, they also failed to achieve their goals.
There is a real possibility that sanctions against North Korea may now be in danger of repeating this same experience. Sanctions are proving to be not only ineffective in achieving their goals, but having deleterious humanitarian and developmental impacts. They may even perpetuate the conflict they are trying to solve.