The Problem With North Korean Sanctions

Paul Carroll, Kathleen Stephens, and Robert L. Thomas Jr. discuss North Korea's nuclear program and regional stability in Northeast Asia. (1 hr., 31 min.)

After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September, the United Nations Security Council imposed a stringent set of sanctions aimed at the country’s economy as well as its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.


Two months later, there are signs that North Korea is indeed feeling the pain — its mission to the United Nations recently said the “brutal” sanctions violate the human rights of its people and amount to “genocide.” At a recent Asia Society event in New York, North Korean defector and former high-ranking economic official Ri Jong Ho said the sanctions were of “historical” proportions and may cause the country’s collapse within a year — killing many people in the process.


But some experts are skeptical as to whether this suffering will actually bring down the North Korean leadership or that it will push them any closer to denuclearization.


“They can suffer through an incredible amount of pain and sustain a very robust military-industrial complex,” said retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert L. Thomas, Jr., who previously served in South Korea, at a recent Asia Society event in San Francisco.


In the mid-1990s, North Koreans endured a famine (referred to domestically as “The Arduous March”) that resulted in the deaths of anywhere from several hundred thousand to 2 million people and threatened the viability of the regime. “I can remember 20 years ago when we said, ‘That's it — they'll be starving to death and then we've got to worry about an implosion, and then how do we handle the humanitarian crisis?’ Thomas said. “Well, we've had that wrong.”


Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said strict economic sanctions that affect the livelihood of ordinary North Koreans can actually legitimize the leadership’s claims that shortages of food and other goods are the fault of foreign powers. “It can reinforce the regime's hold on power and the pride and defensiveness of the population,” she said. “So it's hard to know when it will be effective.”


As painful as economic sanctions may be for North Korea and even its top leadership, leader Kim Jong Un likely has more compelling incentives to steam ahead with his weapons programs. He sits at the precipice of being able to deliver a miniaturized nuclear warhead to the United States on an intercontinental ballistic missile. With this capability, he can directly provoke the U.S. and other world powers to gain concessions, rather than be limited to provocations with South Korea as in the past.


“If you're the executive assistant of Kim Jong Un, you ought to be walking into his office every day and saying, ‘Absolutely do not give up your nuclear weapons or ballistic missile program,’ Thomas said. “You have built a deterrent that has brought other countries to the point where they have to deal with you.”


“The other thing I’d probably do is put a portrait of [deposed and executed Libyan leader] Muammar Gaddafi in his office and say, ‘Warning! You give all this up and bad things will happen to you,’” he added.


Stephens noted that Kim’s weapons program also scores him domestic points. “It has become Exhibit A for legitimacy on the Korean peninsula,” she said. “North Korea doesn't match South Korea in any other way by any other measure, but you see in the internal propaganda information machine: ‘We have missiles. We have nuclear weapons. It makes us able to sit at the top table.'”


Paul Carroll, a senior advisor at N Square researching North Korea’s nuclear program, said one problem with the strict sanctions program is that the countries imposing them haven’t offered realistic “off-ramps” for Kim. “What are sanctions for?” he asked. “Just to punish? They shouldn't be. What they should be for is creating enough discomfort or pain to show another path.”


“I'm not suggesting we end sanctions,” he added. “But unless there's a flip side of that coin, they won’t be effective. It'll be like London under the blitz — it'll steel the resolve.”


Watch the full discussion with Carroll, Thomas, and Stephens in the above video. Watch the discussion with Ri Jong Ho in the video below.


Ri Jong Ho, a former senior North Korean economic official who defected in 2014, describes a meeting in which leader Kim Jong Un expressed his dissatisfaction, and some profanity, toward China and its president. (3 min., 36 sec.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.