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North Korea sanctions still aiming for denuclearisation?

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In Brief

On 2 March, in the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear test and satellite launch, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a new set of stinging sanctions. Among other things, these include a partial ban on North Korean exports of coal, iron and iron ore, and a blanket ban on other items, such as gold and rare earth minerals.


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The sanctions regime against North Korea has never been stricter, with the United States, South Korea and Japan also strengthening their unilateral sanctions. But, is the goal of sanctions still denuclearisation?

The underlying assumption of bringing in new sanctions is that the existing ones have been ineffective. Certainly, if the goal is denuclearisation, previous sanctions have indeed been ineffective. Yet what hardline supporters of sanctions often seem to overlook is that there is virtually nothing that targeted sanctions can do to stop a non-democratic state hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons at any financial or social expense. As one North Korea expert recently put it, ‘when they tighten their belts, the last thing they cut is the military’.

The failure to appreciate this frustrating reality results in calls for stronger and stronger sanctions in the vain hope that this time they will work. The upshot of this sanctions race, in which any sanction becomes a good sanction, is that the very aim of the sanctions seems to have quietly changed from denuclearisation to regime collapse.

The latest US proposal to ban all exports of crude oil to North Korea is a good example of this change. Although the ban was limited to aviation fuel in the final version of the UN sanctions, one has to wonder about the intent behind such a proposal. While banning crude oil would paralyse North Korea’s nuclear program, it would also paralyse all other aspects of North Korean society.

One only needs to look at the disastrous famine which crippled North Korea in the 1990s to see the effects of an abrupt termination of oil exports. Oil is used in pesticides and it is necessary in order to transport food from producers to consumers. The sudden disappearance of Soviet and Chinese oil in the 1990s seriously disrupted North Korea’s agricultural and industrial sectors, and contributed to one of the worst famines in modern history. The US suggestion to block all crude oil exports to North Korea, therefore, seems to be more about regime collapse than denuclearisation.

One under-reported consequence of US pressure for stronger sanctions is ‘self-sanctioning’ by international banks, who tend to shy away from all transactions related to North Korea regardless of whether the product is banned or not. This stems from the 2005 Banco Delta Asia precedent, which indicated that the United States is prepared to blacklist any bank that it sees as overly cooperative with North Korea. This move has scared many international banks into toeing the US line and thereby adversely affects a number of North Korean products and services that are not subject to sanctions, such as tourism. Even more worrisome is the damaging effect this ‘self-sanctioning’ has on humanitarian aid to North Korea by international NGOs.

Despite all the talk about ‘smart’ sanctions, we now seem to be entering a situation where sanctions are being pursued for their own sake. While regime collapse has never officially been stated as a goal, the reputational cost of inaction for the US and other powers is increasing, while the number of not-yet-sanctioned targets in North Korea is decreasing. It seems inevitable that the push for ever more ‘effective’ sanctions will hit ordinary North Korean citizens harder than anyone likes to admit.

It seems that South Korea already considers regime collapse to be a goal, or at least an acceptable risk, of its North Korea policy. If regime collapse is indeed an objective of sanctions, the substantial risks associated with this course of action need to be seriously discussed. It would be unwise to implicitly pursue regime collapse without first engaging in a rigorous debate about whether this can be realistically achieved, and at what cost. The other, much more preferable, option is to take seriously the conclusion that sanctions will not deter North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons.

North Korea has demonstrated repeatedly that it will stop at nothing to develop its nuclear program. Hardline supporters of sanctions appear similarly determined to prevent this program despite the risks. This spiral of stubbornness will inevitably lead to a blurring of sanction objectives and unwarranted suffering by ordinary North Koreans.

Ulv Hanssen is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of East Asia Studies, the Free University of Berlin.

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