North Korea sanctions: Futile, counterproductive and dangerous

If you have a sense of deja vu reading headlines about new UN sanctions on North Korea as punishment for a nuclear test, that's because you literally have seen these headlines before -- as recently as spring.

In March, after Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test, the UN Security Council promised that Resolution 2270 would be the game-changer, inflicting crippling economic pain that would force Kim Jong Un to change his calculus. Those spring sanctions were billed as "the toughest yet."

Spring, alas, turns into summer, and then fall.

Proponents of sanctions, or "boa constrictors" as I affectionately call them, were sounding less triumphant by September, when Kim Jong Un flouted the UNSC by carrying out a fifth nuclear test -- the largest to date. Even worse, trade statistics showed North Korea generating more revenue than ever in coal sales to China (buoyed up by rising coal prices). It looked the game had not really changed after all.


Rather than step back and rethink the strategy for dealing with the North Korean quagmire, Washington plunged headlong into another round of lobbying Beijing and Moscow for yet more sanctions.

Over the last three months, the focus was on getting agreement to close the coal "loophole" in the previous resolution, which had exempted trade related to people's "livelihoods." The centerpiece of the new resolution is that it imposes "a hard, binding cap on (North Korea's) coal exports." We are being promised these new sanctions will cut the flow of hard currency into Kim's coffers by $700 million.

Alas, the $700 million mark is a just a projection based on a best-case scenario that assumes perfect compliance with the coal cap. Lots of crossborder trade with China goes unreported in the first place, so we could simply see more of it going off the books. The resolution sets a total export volume, 7.5 million tons, that North Korea is not allowed to exceed, but there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance or punish non-compliance.

Sanctioned to fail

For the sake of argument, let's accept the best-case premise that North Korea makes $700 million less on coal exports next year, and is unable to make it up in other economic activity (another hidden assumption!).

Well guess what -- if Kim and his generals have to tighten their belts, the nuclear and missile programs are about the last things they will cut. On the contrary, in the absence of diplomatic talks and under intensified pressure, Pyongyang is likely to double-down on its nuclear deterrent, which it sees as its best guarantee of national security and regime survival.

It makes sense to slap Pyongyang on the wrist for flagrant violations of nuclear non-proliferation treaties and norms. And it's prudent to enforce narrow sanctions targeting the nuclear and missile programs. However, the international community should no longer delude itself into thinking that economic punishment will force Kim Jong Un to cry uncle and give up his nuclear deterrent.

More sanctions designed to inflict greater pain on North Korea only steels Pyongyang's resolve to hold on tight to what it calls the "treasured sword" of a nuclear arsenal.

That brings us to the final, sad irony in these years spent trying to "tighten the noose" around Kim Jong Un's neck and build a wall around the North Korean economy. The sanctions effort is not only futile, it's counterproductive and dangerous.

"Comprehensive" sanctions send North Korea deeper into isolation and increase the risks of a war that no one wants, a war that could be truly catastrophic.

Another path

We should be moving into the exact opposite direction. The only solution to the North Korean dilemma is a long-term strategy to draw the regime and North Korean people out of their isolation. It will take decades, and starts with sitting down at the table with Kim Jong Un, and helping him open up and develop his economy.

We will have to put up with North Korea's de facto nuclear status for some time. That said, there are things we can get through negotiation to freeze their program, restore monitoring, and reduce risks of a conflict that escalates beyond control.

Right now, South Korean foreign policy is paralyzed by the public's demand that President Park Geun-hye step down. Park has turned into a hardliner on North Korea, and looking ahead, the leading candidates to replace her support a strategy of engaging Pyongyang. Donald Trump has sent mixed signals about how he will handle North Korea, but during the campaign he did boldly express a willingness to talk with Kim Jong Un. Beijing, no matter how annoyed by its neighbor, consistently maintains the view that talks and trade are the solution to the North Korean conundrum.

They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn. Perhaps, after today's promises of "game-changing" sanctions give way once more to disappointment with their effects, the cycle will be broken, and a new strategy can be pursued.

John Delury is an associate professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed below are solely his own.

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