Alternatives to sanctions
Do normative prohibitions like sanctions restrain state behavior? Experts who research on sanctions know one thing to be true about the future of sanctions: Sanctions are becoming like Kodak film or Sony’s Walkman. They are going out of fashion because of their ineffectiveness. From 1914 to 1990, according to Dr. Robert A. Pape’s research article in 1998, sanctions succeeded in 40 of 115 cases, or 34 percent of the total. His conclusion was: “There is little empirical support that economic sanctions can achieve ambitious foreign policy goals.” He was not alone in this argument. Pundits and policy makers, such as George Kennan, George Shultz, Johan Galtung and Milton Friedman, had belittled the effectiveness of sanctions in foreign policy. Sanctions are not a panacea, so to speak. If the past is any guide, the absence of the effectiveness of the sanctions would force the sanctioning states to ultimately resort to military options in order to rescue their international reputations.
As an isolated, homogeneous and at times provocative barracks state, North Korea has long been a target for sanctions. From the nuclear tests in 2006 and again in 2009 and 2013 to the recent hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the communist regime has been stung by the U.S. decision to change its national character by force. Yet the economic and political impact of the American-led sanctions against the nuclear-armed North Korea has not produced the anticipated results or transformed the regime fundamentally because of America’s reluctance to incur politically heavy costs and the repercussions of the tests from other states. Given this, it is much safer to say that we should not hold reasons for optimism about the effectiveness of sanctions.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration again took the course of imposing its economic sanctions against 10 senior North Korean officials and the intelligence agency, as if sanctions were the “American way of war,” insisting that the feudalistic regime in Pyongyang was behind the hacking of Sony. The actions based on an executive order President Obama signed on vacation in Hawaii were apparently a robust arrow in this quiver. Congress also called for use of the full scope of the new sanctions announced after the administration said that North Korea was behind the Sony attack.
However, sanctions often produce unintended or undesirable consequences. A massive exodus of ordinary North Koreans, not the regime’s elites, out of economic distress is a good example, despite the fact that sanctions should focus, as far as possible, upon those directly responsible for the criminal behavior. Still, it is not clear whether the repressive regime is likely to choose between acquiescence and deadlock. If the United States asks for too many concessions at a time, North Korea will choose a path toward a stalemate rather than backing down. Indeed, the sanctions recalled painful images of past suffering endured by the ordinary people, including the tragic scenes on unaccompanied child refugees in China called kotchebi. The horrific scenes of child beggars sleeping on the street and scavenging for food stunned the TV viewers.
Tightening the sanctions is not a wise, strategic option to make North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, and his elite entourage feel the pain. It is rather like “putting out a forest fire with a few drops of water.” North Korea’s routes and airspace are virtually blocked, but the regime has the wall against China commonly sharing a long border. A safe haven of the Kim regime, China still sees the world’s most closed nation as its natural sphere of influence - much as the United States views Latin America. The assertion that North Korea is becoming a liability to China is not correct. China, both a traditional ally of North Korea and potentially the largest investor in the North, could play a particularly significant role in keeping the family-run dictatorship relatively stable and safe, completely regardless of the Kim dynasty’s possible collapse leading to internal strife. That said, the alliance of “tooth-and-lips” between China and North Korea is likely to weaken the Obama administration’s endeavors to plug the loopholes as soon as it learns of them - strong proof that is virtually certain to be dead on arrival in the Sino-American competition.
Now that sanctions are often credited as a low-cost and relatively humane alternative to military force, one might hope that the Obama administration will repeat to North Korea what he did to Cuba lately, instead of applying Iran-like sanctions to North Korea. The continuation of the current U.S. coercive approach toward the unpredictable regime is a recipe for hastening the regime to solidify its nuclear status in the world, as the case of the United States coming close to fighting a war against the totalitarian regime in 1994 so clearly demonstrated. The coercive tactics are by no means the most effective weapon in situations where we do not have high confidence that they will work. In reality, we find it difficult to exactly assess any causal weight to sanctions, unless the economic sanctions should be employed in conjunction with other measures such as regular massive military operations. We need a time out.
Those who fear another outbreak in the peninsula keep warning that the current military exercises between South Korea and the United States need to be modified in some way to demonstrate good will and open room for negotiations, essentially because the exercises always functioned as the decisive factor of obstructing the inter-Korean relationship. The United States should not see the exercises as a race between Pyongyang and Washington, and vice versa. The conciliatory moves of Obama should counterbalance the high-pitched tone of animosity provoked by his predecessor, unless the United States aims to bring the reclusive hermit kingdom to its knees. Vetoing any new sanctions, as he said in the seventh State of the Union speech with regard to Iran, would make commemorative sense.
As has been repeatedly observed over the last few decades, the common problem faced by the two Koreas and their neighboring countries is that the shift to the denuclearization of North Korea, which constitutes the key to the process of the Korean unification, does not take place naturally. This is because, for a variety of reasons, there exists the difference of perceptions - for example, the level of security threat - among individual countries in handling the hopeless regime. So we have an apparent paradox here.
The obvious answer to this paradox is to accept that the supposedly military clashes are actually likely to do them good if effectively implemented. The six-party talks, albeit stalled since 2008, are a weather vane blindly following the winds of leaders’ sentiments in Northeast Asia. In particular, the United States, the most powerful deterrent of a preventive counterproliferation attack from North Korea, needs to behave like a superpower, while working to make North Korea a strategic asset in the future. Whatever the reasons might be, we must avert the danger of real war on the peninsula. As a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama, again, should demonstrate the political courage and moral legitimacy needed to help North Korean people escape from the shadow of poverty and disease. That is the most powerful sanction against the brutal regime in the North.
*The author is director for Nonproliferation Centre at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.
by Lee Byong-chul