U.S. sanctions on North Korea: Dead on arrival

Will sanctions really stop Pyongyang from launching missiles to Alaska?

In July North Korea defied a U.N. ban by twice testing intercontinental ballistic missiles CREDIT: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
In July North Korea defied a U.N. ban by twice testing intercontinental ballistic missiles CREDIT: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

U.S. relations with North Korea are rapidly growing more tense — and all the United States has to show for it so far are a new round of sanctions.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that according to the latest U.S. intelligence assessment, North Korea has “successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.”

The news follows a week of escalating tensions, including a written statement from North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho that his country will not use nuclear weapons against any country “except the U.S.” Ri also said Pyongyang will “under no circumstances” negotiate anything to do with its nuclear or ballistic missile programs.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, last month, the isolated Asian nation tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that experts say could reach U.S. shores, specifically Alaska. The country is celebrating the ICBM test launches with a series of commemorative stamps.

Apparently ready to match North Korea’s tone, Donald Trump on Tuesday said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the U.S. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

With the recent increase in hostility, what would success from the Trump administration’s new sanctions even on North Korea look like?

In what might be a last-ditch effort at reaching a diplomatic solution with an increasingly volatile North Korea, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to pass a new round of sanctions on North Korea on Saturday, in hopes of getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. U.S. sanctions signed by President Donald Trump a few days earlier also target North Korea’s human rights abuses and enforce U.N. shipping sanctions against North Korea.

The U.N. sanctions are estimated to cost Pyongyang $1 billion – a third of its roughly $3 billion in annual exports. China, who has vowed to stick to the sanctions, picks up $2.5 billion of North Korea’s annual exports alone. So in terms of hard numbers how much pain would these sanctions cause?

James Person, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center laughed — hard — when asked about China’s vow to comply with the sanctions.

“A lot of people are making a lot out of the fact that China voted for these sanctions…basically what it boils down to is China is not going to let North Korea be brought to its knees to force North Korea to the negotiating table,” said Person. “They [China] have fundamentally different interest in the peninsula from those of the United States. They want stability. They don’t want to bring about the possibility of state collapse in North Korea, they don’t want refugees streaming across the border and the last thing they want is a unified Korean state that will be closely allied to the United States, which would likely happen.”

He said nothing — not even sanctions against China — will prompt them “to do our bidding” with North Korea. This is a “fundamentally flawed policy” the United States has been pursuing for four decades, Person added.

So far, outsourcing its North Korea policy to China has not worked for the United States. Indeed, North Korea’s response can politely be described as “defiant.” As it stands, it does not look like North Korea will budge on U.S. and U.N. demands.

The U.S. sanctions regime, said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, is multi-faceted, as it takes aim at individuals who are involved in human rights abuses.

It’s hard to know if such sanctions will be effective, said Sifton, although he points to South Korean intelligence indicating that the last round of sanctions against North Korea might have “lead the regime to be a little bit less aggressive or brutal in its crackdowns and human rights abuses.”

“I mean, they’re still incredibly brutal, but…[international pressure] had somewhat of an impact in motivating them to try and be … a little less egregious,” said Sifton.

The U.N. sanctions, which target the weapons program, said Sifton, don’t really get North Korea’s illegal weapons trade with countries such as Nigeria and Uganda but it targets the regime.

Still, Sifton believes that progress is possible, if the sanctions are multilateral and properly implemented – if not in the case of Cuba, then perhaps somewhat in the case of Myanmar, which Sifton refers to by its other name, Burma.

“The Burma junta ultimately loosened its grip because it was shunned on the world stage…they still hold inordinate amounts of power because the constitution is flawed, but Burma is a lesson on how sanctions can push a military to relinquish its grip on power.”

While Myanmar might be an example of when sanctions can yield gains from the perspective of the U.N., North Korea might be learning different lessons.

For example, even if North Korea changed course and opted to negotiate, what would it take for the United States and U.N. to scale back on sanctions? If the Trump administration’s stance on Iran is any indication, even fully complying with the terms of a nuclear deal is no guarantee that fresh sanctions will be out of the question.

“That is an excellent point – and the North Koreans are keen observers of outside developments and the experiences of other countries,” said Person. “They look at the Iran deal and they see that just one president later, they [U.S.] is looking at renegotiating and new rounds of sanctions…They’re looking at this and saying ‘heck no.'”

The North Koreans, he said, have a “credible, defensive rational” for their missile program, “based on their worldview that goes back for decades.”

“They’re not crazy, they’re not irrational, it’s not just some kid who is determined to get nukes so he can take out an American city,” he said.

Person still believes that Pyongyang will eventually come to the negotiating table, but maybe not just on the Trump administration’s terms, which, frankly, are vague at this point.

According to Reuters, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to see North Korea drop its missile tests for an “extended period,” although he declined to give a precise number of days or months.

“We’ll know it when we see it,” said Tillerson.

“That’s not gonna work,” said Person. “You’re not gonna see the North Koreans stepping back and ceasing these tests.”

“They probably understand that they need to sit down and talk to us – they’ve been trying to talk to us since 1974 – but before they do that, they want to demonstrate the ability to mount a [nuclear] warhead,” said Person.

“If you were [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un and if you were as close as you are today in developing a weapon, are you going to walk away from it now?”