Sanction or Stagnation: A Historical Lens of the UN Resolution on North Korea

Anna Quinn, Loyola University Maryland:

Last Monday, the Philippines began formal procedures to impound a cargo vessel linked to North Korea. The ship, which stopped in the country to unload a shipment of agricultural byproducts, was searched and seized under the new UN sanctions. Passed unanimously on March 2nd in a resolution by the UN Security Council, the sanctions are being called the most stringent yet against North Korea. Previously, ships like the 4,355-ton vessel in the Philippines could only be searched if there was probable cause of illicit activity. However, under the new resolution, countries are not only able, but required, to inspect all cargo passing through their territory en route or from North Korea. The Philippines will therefore impound the ship, deport the 31-person crew of North Korean citizens, and hold the craft to be inspected by UN officials.

While this measure marks the first enforcement of the new sanctions, it is not the only requirement that they entail. The resolution, which aims to prevent further development of the country’s nuclear program, also expanded the list of banned goods. The new list now includes luxury items such as snowmobiles, watches and jet skis, mainly to prevent Kim Jong-un from using such items to bribe the nation’s elites, as he has been known to do.

These new sanctions, although the strictest in history, are hardly a new strategy in international policy against North Korea. The country has been the subject of sanctions by both individual countries and the international community for roughly 20 years. Which, arguably, have not done much to prevent the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arms program. This is most obviously evidenced by the need for the newest sanctions—which were spurred after a nuclear test was performed by the country on Jan. 6th and long-range rocket test on Feb. 7th. This then begs the question: will these new requirements make any difference? More importantly, in what ways are sanctions effective as a political tactic at all?

The answer may in fact lie in previously failed attempts at changing North Korean behavior, of which there are many.  The UN Security Council’s most recent resolution simply adds to a long list of prohibitions. For instance, Brent Berger, head of Asia Program at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Program reports that the sanctions call for a ban on supporting nuclear programs, the suspension of the regime’s ballistic missile program, the reversal of the country’s withdrawal from the 2003 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the return to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Additional restrictions are placed on the financial activities of specific North Korean citizens and companies.

But these measures, as outlined in an article in German international news outlet Deutsche Welle (DW), have run into several obstacles in their effectiveness. For one, they have proved extremely difficult to implement. Berger points out that “many states, especially small ones, lack the implementation and enforcement capacities.” Additionally, there is a simple lack of awareness among company officials of the restrictions on North Korean business. The New York Times notes that UN sanctions in particular lack enforcement capacity since the Security Council does not punish countries that fail to implement them or even those who aid North Korea’s illicit trade. Perhaps the most harmful example of a country participating in this is the North’s largest trade partner: China. China and North Korea not only share an 870-mile border, but they trade up to $2 billion worth of goods annually. This accounts for 40% of the North’s external trade—which has proven to be helpful not just to North Korea’s economy, but to its nuclear capacity specifically. David Albright, a North Korea expert quoted in DW’s article, notes that “as it is now, North Korea has little trouble buying in China what it needs for its [nuclear] programs.”

Despite this trade, however, it is clear that North Korea’s economy is by no means flourishing. The Institute for Security and Development Policy estimated that its economy grew at an anemic 1.1% in 2013. Yet, another impediment to the effectiveness of sanctions lies in North Korea’s seeming apathy to its economic hardships. The New York Times notes, “most analysts say that none of the threats are large enough to stop a government that sees nuclear weapons as key to its survival, has endured decades of economic sanctions and hardships, including even starvation, rather than capitulate to outside pressure.” The 1990s present a prime example of North Korea’s stubbornness, when much of their population suffered a devastating famine as a result of their policies.

So, the question remains, will anything be different with the new round of sanctions? Initially, the answer seems like a strong no considering that only hours after the resolution was passed, South Korea reported the launch of short-range missiles off the North Korean coast. This could reflect a strong signal that the North does not intend to comply with the UN’s sanctions. However, another element of the resolution suggests it might be more successful than its predecessors. The New York Times reported that the sanctions reflected “closer cooperation between the United States and China,” who had been primary negotiators of the resolution. China also publicly opposed the development of North Korea’s nuclear arms program and both of the tests they carried out earlier this year. Their agreement to the sanctions also included a limit on imports of North Korean coal and iron ore, as long as it was demonstrated that these imports would support the North’s illicit weapons programs. Those involved in the negotiations, including China, expressed hope that the sanctions would provide the pressure needed to resume peace talks with the reclusive nation. The even larger hope, however, is that North Korea will act in time to prevent repeating its history of famine. Currently, reports CNN, the country is facing the worst drought in 100 years. And, as part of the government’s development policies, money is being reallocated into urban areas—likely causing rural areas to suffer the effects of the drought even further.

Some skeptics argue that sanctions shouldn’t even be implemented due to these consequences they create for the North’s population. Emma Campbell, in an article for East Asia Forum, asserts that, “When constructing policy toward the DPRK [North Korea], there is a responsibility to prevent a worsening of the plight of the North Korean people.” This criticism, when looked at against the decades of sanctions with little success in halting nuclear development, seems entirely sound. If China’s willing participation in enforcing the new resolution doesn’t prove effective, perhaps it is time for a new strategy—if only for the sake of the North Korean people.


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