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Countering Sanctions: The Unequal Geographic Impact of Economic Sanctions in North Korea

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This paper examines how an autocratic regime domestically counters the impact of economic sanctions. A stylized model predicts that, as long as non-compliance is not too costly, the autocrat redistributes resources to the more valuable urban area when sanctions increase. Empirically, I examine the case of North Korea. I use the satellite night lights data to create average luminosity for each one minute by one minute cell between 1992 and 2010. I construct a sanctions index that varies based on the international response to North Korea’s nuclear pursuit. I find that sanctions increase the urban-rural luminosity gap by 1.07%. Consistent with urban elite capture, Pyongyang, the center of power is best shielded from sanctions followed by province capitals. The hinterlands respond: luminosity near the Chinese border increases with sanctions. Sanctions that fail to change the leader’s behavior increase inequality at a cost to the already marginalized hinterlands.

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