As we contemplate how to strike back at North Korea because it is believed to be behind the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer network, the foremost proposal is tightening sanctions. In my visits to targeted countries, I have seen how this strategy can be cruel to innocent people who know nothing about international disputes and are already suffering under dictatorial leaders.
The imposition of economic embargoes on unsavory regimes is most often ineffective and can be counterproductive. In Cuba, where the news media are controlled by the government, many people are convinced that their economic plight is caused by the United States and that they are being defended by the actions of their Communist leaders, who are therefore strengthened in power. I have visited the homes of both Castro brothers and some of the regime’s other top officials, and it is obvious that their living conditions have not suffered because of the embargo. Many Cuban families are deprived of good incomes, certain foods, cellphones, Internet access and basic freedoms, but at least they have access to a good education and health care, and they live in a tropical environment where the soil is productive and where some fortunate families may have trees that bear bananas and other fruit. In addition, Cubans receive about $2 billion annually in remittances from friends and relatives in the United States.
The situation is more tragic in North Korea, where none of these advantages exist. The U.S. embargo, imposed 64 years ago at the start of the Korean War, has been more strictly enforced, with every effort made to restrict or damage North Korea’s economy. During my visits to Pyongyang, I have had extensive discussions with government officials and forceful female leaders who emphasized the plight of people who were starving. The United Nations’ World Food Program estimates that at least 600 grams of cereal per day is needed for a “survival ration” and that the daily food distribution in North Korea has at times been as low as 128 grams. In 1998, U.S. congressional staffers who visited the country reported a range of 300,000 to 800,000 dying each year from starvation.
In 2001, the Carter Center arranged for North Korean agricultural leaders to go to Mexico to learn how to increase production of their indigenous crops, and the U.S. contribution of grain rose to 695,000 tons in the late 1990s during a brief period of U.S.-North Korean reconciliation. However, the contribution was drastically reduced under President George W. Bush and then terminated completely by President Obama in 2010. I visited the State Department then and was told that the main problem was North Korea’s refusal to permit any supervision of food deliveries.
In 2011, I returned to North Korea, accompanied by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and former prime minister of Norway Gro Brundtland, a physician who had been director of the World Health Organization. We stopped first in Beijing for briefings from regional World Food Program officials, who said there were no restraints on monitoring of food deliveries to families in North Korea. They followed us to Pyongyang and accompanied us to rural areas where tiny food allotments were being distributed to families. The government gave an official guarantee that all such food deliveries could be monitored by the United States and other donors. I reported this to Washington, with the assessment that one-third of North Korean children were malnourished and stunted in their growth and that daily food intake was between 700 and 1,400 calories per person, compared with a normal American’s 2,000 to 2,500. Our government took no action.
There is no excuse for oppression by a dictatorial regime, but the degree of harsh treatment depends at least partially on the dissatisfaction of the citizens. Starving people are more inclined to demand relief from their plight, protest and be punished or executed. As in Cuba, the political elite in North Korea do not suffer, and the leaders’ all-pervasive propaganda places the blame for deprivation on the United States, not themselves. The primary objective of dictators is to stay in office, and we help them achieve this goal by punishing their already suffering subjects and letting them claim to be saviors.
When non-military pressure on a government is considered necessary, economic sanctions should be focused on travel, foreign bank accounts and other special privileges of government officials who make decisions, not on destroying the economy that determines the living conditions of oppressed people.
Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States.