North Korea avoids brunt of punishing sanctions

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Sanctions might never be enough to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions, experts say.

North Korea has been under sanctions for decades, so they’ve developed ways of maneuvering around them which make sanctions unlikely to produce diplomatic results, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said.

 “ ► I don’t see even the slightest indication” that North Korea will forego its nuclear ambitions as the result of the latest round of sanctions aimed at the country, Silberstein said.

There is less at stake for North Korea because the country is already so poor, isolated and undeveloped, which makes it tough for sanctions to squeeze the North Korean economy, Silberstein said.

Timeline of key moments in North Korea/International relations

Nuclear posturing

The United Nations Security Council passed two rounds of sanctions recently that are designed to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

The first, in August, cut North Korea’s export revenue by a third. The second, in September, banned North Korean exports of textiles and limited crude oil imports.

Kim Jong Un threatened to inflict “the greatest pain and suffering” on the United States in response to the sanctions, which have had little impact on curbing North Korea’s nuclear actions.

Three days after the second round of sanctions, the North Korean government launched a missile toward Japan.

North Korea has not backed down rhetorically either, with both Trump and Kim Jong Un trading barbs over the last few weeks.

Trump called Kim Jong Un “rocket man” during a speech at the U.N., and in an unprecedented move, the North Korean leader responded in a video where he called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

Sidestepping sanctions

The sanctions are unlikely to impact North Korea’s military or nuclear weapons programs, according to a report by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability:

North Korea “will quickly effect a combination of additional energy end-use efficiency, outright cuts and substitution of non-oil energy forms to manage the cuts.”

Five reasons North Korea can survive sanctions without yielding to pressure:

  1. Black-market economy
    • An economic network under the radar of international financial monitoring helps North Korea survive traditional economic blockades.
  2. The prolific use of shell companies
    • North Korea controls its businesses, so the country is able to change the names of sanctioned companies virtually overnight, which helps them slip by sanctions.
  3. International non-cooperation
    • Countries like Russia and China are willing to trade, openly and under the table, with North Korea because they are not always interested in supporting U.S. geopolitical goals.
  4. Isolation experts
    • North Koreans are experts at ‘getting by’ because they have lived in relative isolation for decades and are used to surviving on very little.
  5. Human rights
    • Kim Jong Un’s government has few qualms about sacrificing quality of life in North Korea to keep funding and running its national security and military efforts. 

Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, wrote in an email that North Korea gets around sanctions “through a variety of cut-outs located abroad and permissive (or, at the very least, inattentive) customs and export control enforcement in a variety of countries.”

International cooperation

North Korea only needs a few transactions to satisfy its needs, and policing that level of activity is as difficult as stopping drug smugglers and organized crime syndicates, Nephew says.

He says sanctions could work, but “only if paired with a diplomatic strategy that shows North Korea what it could gain by negotiating a conclusion to international concerns” with their nuclear program.

The problem is convincing Russia and China, along with the rest of the international community, that forcing North Korea to negotiate giving up their weapons, Nephew says.

For the United States to successfully pressure North Korea it would have to convince China that the U.S. is ► willing to go to war to get rid of the potential for a nuclear North Korea, Silberstein says.

War of words

Besides threatening rhetoric, sanctions and military exercises, neither the U.S. nor North Korea has escalated its posturing, Silberstein says.

The U.S. could be successful in persuading North Korea that it’s in their interest to negotiate, but they won’t work to convince them to abandon its nuclear program, according to Nephew.

North Korea can avoid the brunt of sanctions punishments, so there is very little that the U.S. could do with sanctions to its goal of a disarmed North Korea, Silberstein says.

There haven’t been sanctions this tight before though, according to Silberstein, it’s hard to know how things will play out.

A history of failure

Sanctions have been targeted at countries like Russia, China, Iran and others by the U.S. in the past, but it’s unlikely “that sanctions have been effective” in any of those situations, Silberstein says.

Grading the success of particular sanctions is difficult to do, he notes, but they require the cooperation of the entire international financial community.

To pressure North Korea the U.S. has to have the full cooperation of China, but they are reluctant to stop helping North Korea circumvent sanctions because North Korea helps buffer its southern border from South Korea and the U.S. military, he says.

“There are very few cases where you can definitely identify sanctions as having had a success, except sometimes in combination with other factors.”

Silberstein says it is hard to get two or three countries to agree on diplomatic goals. But, it’s almost impossible to get the whole world to do the same. At this point, it’s likely that relations between the U.S. and North Korea return to the status quo at some point.

Professor Adam Roberts, a research fellow at Oxford University, told the BBC that sanctions don’t always work:

“There are very few cases where you can definitely identify sanctions as having had a success, except sometimes in combination with other factors.” 

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