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New North Korea sanctions a plausible step yet unlikely to break long-standing deadlock


A man reads a newspaper reporting on a rocket launch by North Korea.
Photo credit: 
Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun

In a Q&A, SK Center Fellow Yong Suk Lee discusses U.S. policy toward North Korea and the viability of 'secondary sanctions'

North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 3, a first for the country that has increasingly advanced proliferation and testing over the last three years despite condemnation from the international community.

The United States, following the ICBM launch, called for additional efforts to cut-off flows of currency into North Korea. Officials have said, as part of the proposals, they are considering ‘secondary sanctions’ that would target companies and financial institutions that deal with North Korea even beyond those already banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Just returned from Seoul, SK Center Fellow Yong Suk Lee spoke with Shorenstein APARC about the effectiveness of historical sanctions on North Korea, one of his research areas. He also shared thoughts on U.S. policy toward North Korea and the viability of new sanctions.

Could you describe how sanctions have historically been applied on North Korea? What do they generally look like in terms of scope and whom do they often target?

Sanctions generally fall into three different categories: trade, travel and financial transactions, and in the case of North Korea, all three kinds have been applied. Trade sanctions, for example, have focused on minerals, technology and energy sources, with the goal of hindering the purchase of products that could aid in weapons development. Financial sanctions, for example, have sought to control flows of money to and from certain individuals and entities associated with the government. Whether sanctions are applied multilaterally through the U.N. or unilaterally, it’s difficult to enforce them especially in a country as closed-off as North Korea. It’s also difficult to identify how to draw the line between sanctions that only punish the bad behaviors of a few versus those that affect the broader population: that’s a balance policymakers attempt to strike.

Your research has looked at the impact of sanctions in both rural and urban areas of North Korea from the 1990s through the 2000s. How did you analyze their implementation and performance? In a technical sense, have sanctions been effective?

In the 1990s, sanctions on North Korea relaxed in concert with the Sunshine Policy, an effort by the South Korean administration under Kim Dae-jung to engage North Korea. By the early to mid-2000s, the international community began to increase sanctions again as North Korea continued its nuclear and weapons development. The goal of my research in analyzing those two time periods was to compare and understand the impact of sanctions within North Korea, particularly the impact on its domestic economy. Since there’s not much subnational data available, I identified a proxy for economic activity – nighttime lights as seen from outer space – that acted as an indicator of consumption, production and energy allocation across North Korea.

I found that certain areas became relatively brighter than other areas when sanctions increased. The capital Pyongyang, cities that share a border with China, and pockets where manufacturing is clustered all became brighter. This result indicates that sanctions were effective in a technical sense, yet were ineffective in reaching their intended target. The North Korean regime has found ways to reallocate resources toward urban areas where government officials and elites reside.

How has North Korea evaded potential effects of sanctions in the past?

North Korea has avoided effects of sanctions through internal actions, such as redistribution of resources to government officials and elites, like those patterns identified in my research, and also though external actions, such as trade with other countries. Increasing financial activities and trade with neighbor countries fills in some of the gaps caused by sanctions. North Korea has also maintained ties with African, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries, some of which receive migrant workers from North Korea. Those workers often send remittances back to acquaintances in North Korea, thereby supporting its economy.

In a recent report, you’ve written about China’s relationship with North Korea and how that relationship has aided in the development of markets. Can you describe how the two are tied?

The relationship between China and North Korea is close. By sheer numbers, around 80 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China. All sorts of goods are exchanged through China. For example, goods produced in Western countries that are barred from directly trading with North Korea are often funneled through China. Especially outside of urban areas, North Koreans seek goods from China because they can’t otherwise access them. They also make money by selling goods, mostly minerals, to China. The China-North Korea border is quite porous, so you have a situation where a large number of individuals are engaging in small transactions, and although they may be disparate, the transactions add up.

Is there a strategy that provides hope that China will step up pressure on North Korea?

A lot of the debate, especially in the United States, is about putting pressure on China to do something about North Korea. But if you take a step back and think about it from the Chinese perspective, I think a valid question to ask is: why would China be interested in pressuring their neighbor? For the United States, the main issue with respect to North Korea is the nuclear threat. For China, Japan and South Korea, however, the main issue is not necessarily the nuclear threat but instead the issue of regional stability. So, while China remains important, it is one of many actors that are involved in addressing challenges related to North Korea. I think that point is largely missing from the debate.

U.S. policy has maintained that sanctions will encourage the North Korean regime to change its behavior. Could additional sanctions help?

New sanctions might help. If the intended goal is to decrease flows of currency into North Korea, it would make sense to impose sanctions on Chinese entities or individuals since they remain North Korea’s most prolific trade partners. But the question remains: would it encourage the Chinese government to change its position, and in turn, the North Korean government to bow to additional pressure? From my perspective as an economist, I don’t think enough incentives are at play for either country to react significantly. North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and as history has shown, poor countries can survive in that manner for a long time. They find ways to adapt. Additionally, North Korea has nuclear weapons and the government sees them as leverage for maintaining the status quo.

What should officials keep in mind when considering sanctions?

Sanctions by their very nature are meant to inflict some harm, and that aspect alone does not sit well with the North Korean government. This, however, is where U.S. policy currently stands. It is caught in a deadlock. On one hand, the United States feels an immediate need to discipline the regime for its repeated missile launches under grounds that it threatens national security, and on another hand, the United States does not recognize North Korea’s nuclear program. Given this context, there is little room to consider tools of engagement.

There’s clearly no easy solution to the challenges posed by North Korea, and whatever the solution may be, it will consist of many steps. Over the long-term, I think slowly relaxing sanctions and pursuing quiet engagement with North Korea has greater likelihood of success. Putting aside political leadership and ideology for a moment, if North Koreans had an opportunity to engage in limited economic activities, it could create incentives. Economic development is already changing North Korea and might be its greatest motivation to come to the table to talk about change.

The United States has placed unilateral sanctions on other countries such as Iran, for example, which negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal, and Cuba, which saw opening and reforms in 2016. Do those cases provide lessons that could be applied to the North Korea case?

Iran, compared to North Korea, has a much larger population and holds a prominent position on the world’s stage. Sanctions on Iran carry weight because of the country’s economic ties across the world. That’s one aspect to keep in mind. Another is that Iran isn’t a totalitarian society. The government has to respond to its people to some degree. So, in general, there are more incentives that exist in Iran that could have influenced the decision to negotiate the 2015 Nuclear Deal.

As for Cuba, the case is also unique. The U.S. trade embargo that existed following the end of the Missile Crisis of 1962 lasted for decades not because of a continued existence of nuclear weapons, as in the case of North Korea, but I believe because of ideological issues that remained between two countries. Cuba wasn’t as isolated either, so it was able to conduct business with many countries during that time period. Sanctions have recently been lifted by the United States due to the passage of time and diplomatic efforts.