The international community has long struggled to rein in North Korea¡¯s nuclear program. Initial diplomatic efforts have focused on normalizing relations through the proposal of joint agreements and multilateral negotiations, such as the Six Party Talks. When it became clear that these conciliatory gestures were failing, sanctions became the preferred foreign policy. In the wake of North Korea¡¯s two nuclear detonations in 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed some of the most comprehensive sanctions to date in the form of Resolution 2270 and 2321.
These included bans on trading materials related to North Korea¡¯s weapons program, scientific and technical cooperation with the DPRK, and trade in luxury goods. Critics of the sanctions have questioned the efficacy of such measures, pointing to the unabated pace of North Korea¡¯s weapons testing in 2016 despite the sanctions. They cite the lack of commitment from key signatory members, and argue that economic sanctions burden the poor rather than the ruling elite. A recent seminar hosted by the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI) held in Washington sought to unpack the relative efficacy of sanctions on North Korea.
Kim Joong-ho, senior research fellow at the Export-Import Bank of Korea, opened the event with a summary of the ups and downs of North-South economic relations. Kim noted that throughout the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the South Korean government took the initiative in providing aid to North Korea through numerous business projects, including the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund. While this aid was strongly dependent on political conditions, the Sunshine Policy era of positive North-South relations saw the latter country¡¯s economy improve significantly. Inter-Korean trade as well as North Korean trade with other countries increased, along with a rise in investment capital and the formation of new special economic zones.
However, the majority of these activities were scaled back and eventually cancelled as North Korea¡¯s increasing militarization and weapons testing became apparent. North Korea¡¯s diplomatic relations with most other countries have also fallen to historic lows. The consequent toll on North Korea¡¯s economy has been severe, and rigorous sanctions have the potential to push North Korea over the edge, which will have adverse effects for South Korea. On the other hand, Dr. Kim also noted the interesting rise of the jangmadang, North Korea¡¯s network of markets, official or otherwise, While a planned economy had once reigned supreme, underground marketplaces run by ordinary North Korean citizens now thrive.
Kim¡¯s concluding statements emphasized the role of China as North Korea¡¯s lifeline in skirting the sanctions regime and the role of South Korea¡¯s new government administration in Asia-Pacific¡¯s increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape. Former President Park Geun Hye had tried to hedge the United States against China in the hopes of maintaining South Korea¡¯s historically strong alliance with the former while pursuing the South¡¯s regional interests with the latter. This approach to foreign policy was largely unsuccessful, having strained relations with the United States while achieving no tangible policy achievements with China. Against this backdrop, the incoming South Korean president will need a clearer strategy to deal with North Korea. Kim suggested that the next president will need to implement other measures alongside the current sanctions regime to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. He further added that the future of US-China relations will greatly impact how the regional order in Asia-Pacific will reshape itself.
The second speaker at the event, Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at Renmin University of China, began his presentation by outlining the makeup of sanctions committees. He emphasized that despite the overwhelming number of experts that fill each of the nearly 20 sanctions committee groups, the sanctions have failed to halt North Korea¡¯s weapons development program. They have additionally stunted North Korea¡¯s economy and kept its citizens in poverty, a fact that Kim Jong-un uses as a rallying cry to mobilize North Korean citizens around him and maintain the country¡¯s isolation, cutting off the few remaining avenues for outward connections with the international community.
On the other hand, Dr. Cheng acknowledged that the sanctions regime has succeeded in slowing down North Korean militarization by placing bans on fuel and weaponry parts. It has undermined North Korea¡¯s diplomatic power, especially since China joined as a signatory to the UNSC resolutions, and has dealt a serious blow to the North Korean elite. This instability within the highest corridors of power has put a strain on the North Korean regime, which has led to a series of internal and external policy blunders.
However, the problem remains that the full force of the sanctions regime against North Korea is undermined by the lack of a united, multilateral front. Cheng highlighted the division between the United States and China, in particular. Such high levels of infighting among major stakeholders enable North Korea to evade sanctions, and the motivation for multilateral cooperation decreases. Moreover, Cheng pointed out that North Korea is familiar with sanctions, as it has dealt with bans on imports and exports in the past, and its ability to circumvent controls has improved.
Alexander Gabuev, senior associate and chair of Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, explained the North Korea conflict from Russia¡¯s perspective. He laid out the four main factors influencing North Korea-Russian relations: 1) nuclear security; 2) military security around the North Korea-Russia border area; 3) prestige; and 4) economic incentives to develop Russia¡¯s Far East.
In regards to the first point, Gabuev noted that Russia does not necessarily see North Korea as a major threat. The primary concerns it does have are related to dangers stemming from nuclear proliferation and accidents. Otherwise, the Russian leadership understands Kim Jong-un¡¯s desire to further develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to US imperialism and points toward the US example in Libya as a consequence of not doing so. North Korea¡¯s weapons program is inextricably linked to regime survival, and Russia does not see sanctions—or anything, for that matter—stopping North Korea¡¯s weapons program.
Secondly, similar to China, Russia is concerned over military security surrounding its border with North Korea. It is worried about an increasing US presence on the Korean Peninsula, and the Russian leadership fears that military precautions taken by the US, such as implementing THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) within South Korea, will undermine its sovereignty. The consequent security dilemma is reminiscent of Russia-US antagonism during the Cold War, from which historical animosities remain. Russia is also concerned with its international prestige, and seeks to reassert itself as a global power. According to Gabuev, it is for this reason that Russia revels in its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. This notion drives Russian support for grand, multilateral actions on the international stage and is the primary motivation behind Russia¡¯s approval of the sanctions regime against North Korea.
Russia has also long been interested in developing its Far East region. It has numerous planned investments for railways, gas pipelines and electricity grid projects with both South and North Korea. It also believes that improved business ties with North Korea will make the latter more accountable and reduce its belligerence. However, nothing concrete has ever materialized, and the current sanctions regime against North Korea has effectively quashed any opportunities for economic collaboration.
Gabuev¡¯s concluding comments emphasized that sanctions against North Korea did not provide a substantial advantage to Russia. They do not radically reduce military tensions within the Asia-Pacific region, and they significantly impede Russia¡¯s economic ambitions in the Far East. Especially in contrast to the disadvantages of not supporting the sanctions regime and allowing the United States to take control of the situation, the Russian leadership may have more to lose if it does not stake a foothold in this regional conflict.
The final panel participant was Jim Walsh, senior research associate at MIT¡¯s Security Studies Program. His research focuses on defectors and explores how they evade sanctions. Walsh explained that sanctions have garnered mixed responses from academics and policymakers alike. Most experts agree that sanctions must be coupled with other foreign policy tools, as they are largely ineffective alone.
In regards to North Korean sanctions, Walsh presented four major points: 1) there should be more sanctions imposed against North Korea for greater effect; 2) there must be better implementation of current sanctions for impact; 3) structural factors enable North Korea to evade sanctions regardless of multilateral action; and 4) North Korea has adapted with complex sanctions evasion techniques, and the United Nations has been unable to keep up with these countermeasures. On the question of whether North Korea sanctions are working, Walsh explained that the answer is dependent on whom the sanctions are targeting and what their overall objectives are—does the international community mean to sanction the government or the people? Is the purpose containment, forced isolation or something else?
Technically, he noted, sanctions have not achieved the primary outcome of halting North Korea¡¯s weapons program. Economic pressures resulting from such bans have had little effect in coercing the North Korean elites, who simply shift the burden onto the general population. On the other hand, sanctions have succeeded in increasing the price of material procurement for the North Korean leadership and have led to intercepts of sanctioned materials. They have also politically isolated the regime and have successfully turned up the heat on North Korea over its human rights abuses.
Walsh concluded the panel event by suggesting that more research needs to be done to create effective policies toward North Korea. Walsh emphasized that Washington¡¯s leadership must not view North Korea as an irrational state. Such an oversight will lead to misinformed policies that do not address the nuances of the region¡¯s geopolitical landscape.
*Edited by Lee Farrand