Internationally, sanctions are part and parcel of diplomacy which are usually used for coercing target governments into particular avenues of response as required by the sender state or international organization, like former the League of Nations or the United Nations today. In theory and practice, sanctions require the sender state’s willingness to interfere in the decision-making process of another sovereign state, but in a measured way that supplements diplomatic leverage without immediately using force. Even though it is legally accepted by the international society, it must be admitted that sanctions work less effectively in foreign affairs.
So far, the United States is one of few, if not only, countries in the world which is most frequently and even provocatively using the sanctions against one country or another. The reasons are different, but as Gary Hufbauer put it, demonstration of resolve has often been the driving force behind the imposition of sanctions from the United States. As the only superpower of the world today, the United States has consistently aimed to deploy the sanctions to assert its leadership in the world affairs. Equally Washington is willing or compelled to demonstrate moral courage and reassure its alliances that it will stand by its treaties’ commitments.
Yet to that end, the United States has also frequently demonizing the target countries’ misdeed, even when the likelihood of changing their behaviour is remote. In light of this, the article likes to discuss the case study of the U.S. sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) from three aspects as follows.
First, North Korea has steadily worked on its own nuclear plan since 1993 when it withdrew from the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). Since then, the United Nations has passed several resolutions to impose economic sanctions against the decisions of North Korea. But due to the diverse interests of the major powers on this issue, the sanctions are not effective as expected. China and Russia, while supporting the UN-endorsed resolutions, have stressed that any positive engagement with Pyongyang serves to soften what North Koreans perceive as existential threat to their security and core interests; and in so doing slow down the progress of its nuclear program at its root, like the case of the Iran nuclear deal which was struck in Vienna following two-year intensive talks orchestrated by the Obama administration and finally was signed by Iran and six other nations in 2015. It stipulated that in return for its compliance, all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted in early 2016 with reconnecting the country’s stagnating economy with international markets. Yet, in 2018 President Trump just walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, breaking with allies in Europe and leaving the future of the agreement in doubt. The consequences are self-evident to all the countries, in particular North Korea.
Second, under such circumstances, North Korea has sped up its efforts in enhancing its nuclear capability. From 2016-2018 Pyongyang repeatedly demonstrated its resolve and ability to test more than six nuclear and hydrogen bomb test alongside its projecting technology. Understandably the United States and its allies Japan and Republic of Korea (South Korea) have showed their strong denial to the DPRK’s nuclear tests, as U.S. national security council announced that Washington and its allies would have more military cooperation and deployment in the region because North Korea’s tests were seriously viewed as a provocation which would initiate the next arms race in East Asia. As always, China and Russia called on all sides concerned to preserve the maximum restraint. This call led to the detente between the United States and North Korea, such as the summits between Trump and Kim.
Third, frankly speaking, Pyongyang’ tensions with Washington has escalated sharply since the Trump administration adopted a much sterner policy towards North Korea and his unwise decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal later. Following the exit from the nuclear deal, the U.S. returned the sanctions, mainly on North Korea and Iran’s energy and financial sectors, which had previously been removed under the agreement (JCPOA). As a reaction to Washington’s hostility and in particular its subsequent sanctions, North Korea and Iran have taken the necessary measures to deal with the United States and other major powers, arguing that the U.S. can sanction every man, woman, and child but we will never submit to bullying and threats. Given this, the U.S. should abandon its failed policies and return to negotiations with the two countries involved.
For sure, in the reality of international affairs, sanctions do not often succeed in changing or even coercing the behavior of target countries. First, the sanctions imposed may simply be inadequate for the task to the countries, for example, like DPRK or Iran. The goals may be clear enough, but the means in their use are elusive, such as cooperation from other major powers, though needed badly, are often too tepid. In addition, Iran and North Korea have strong support from one or another or two major powers. And they have had their industrial systems backed up by a relatively strong technology and manufacturing capacities. It tells us that either North Korea or Iran is able to find commercial and industrial alternatives.
Second, China and Russia have supported only the U.N.-endorsed sanctions against North Korea, and thus they have opposed to any attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to change the regime of the target countries regardless of the dire consequences. As the close neighbor of North Korea, China or Russia has vowed their determination not allow the chaos occurred in the Korean peninsula. Given this, Pyongyang has substantially the room to negotiation with the United States and its brotherly counterpart South Korea. In addition, China and Russia have provided North Korea the huge and necessary humanitarian aid. As history reveals that in fact economic sanctions often prompt wealthy and powerful allies or friendly neighbors of the target country to “assume the role of ‘black knights’, whose help can largely offset whatever deprivation results from sanctions themselves.”
Finally, it is true that sometimes the errant aim of the sender countries would have wounded target country and its national feelings and even their own domestic businesses. It means if economic sanctions are existent too long, it is possible to alienate allies abroad and business interests at home as well. In the case of North Korea, South Korea does not support all kinds of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Japan, though they are the allies, on their own brothers and sisters in the north.
In light of what has been discussed above, it is sure that economic sanctions against North Korea are doomed to fail. Actually, since last year when Kim travelled to China in meetings with his Chinese counterpart–President Xi, Pyongyang has dedicated most efforts to economic reconstructions at home and to hold talks with the United States and South Korea, involving all the talks on pulling all guard posts and heavy weapons out of the DMZ, possible denuclearization and all missile programs, and inter-Korean economic cooperation. Despite some obstacles ahead, it is a reasonable requirement to resolve the legitimate security concerns of DPRK. Therefore, it is politically and morally righteous to achieve the final end of the denuclearization through diplomacy rather than any sanctions. That is exactly China’s proposed “dual-track approach”—the realization of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a peaceful mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.