The US’ problem with North Korea is that the usual strategy of heavy sanctions isn’t working in this case.
On Sunday, North Korea claimed that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb to much of the dismay of the US and the international community-at-large. With the country’s sixth nuclear bomb test, North Korea has much of the world worried what it will do if (or when?) North Korea ever becomes a nuclear state.
While the Trump administration continues to try and respond with tougher rhetoric, reports have South Korea searching to employ tougher sanctions in hopes of dissuading North Korea from going further with their nuclear program. Sadly, sanctions against North Korea have looked to be ineffective thus far.
While international sanctions have worked in curbing the hostile actions of Iraq and Russia, sanctions against North Korea have continually been ineffective. From what we have seen, it basically comes down to two reasons:
Reason #1: North Korea Has an Entirely Different End Game When Compared to Either Iran or Russia
Let’s make no bones about it, North Korea is undoubtedly a nation state headed towards collapse. While the country boasts prosperity and strength through its perceived military strength; this outward showing of strength comes at an extreme cost. It’s been well documented that North Korea struggles with crippling poverty and economic stagnation due to its national budget not going to the country’s infrastructure. If left to their own devices, North Korea looks to be the classic example of a nation state that is slowly, but surely, headed towards collapse. North Korea’s only goal at this point is self-preservation.
In contrast, both Iran and Russia are fairly stable nation states. Even though both have their share of internal problems, for the most part, the current regimes are generally stabilized. For them, it isn’t only about survival, but thriving in the international community. Heavy sanctions hurt countries like Iran and Russia because it not only hurts them economically, but also hurts their international perception of being a major global force. That’s why in most cases sanctions can be a very effective deterrent.
For North Korea however, they are betting on a nuclear program being a powerful bargaining chip for negotiating with the US and the international community. Not only would they be among the handful of nations that have nuclear weapons, but negotiating various aspects of their nuclear program could be used to lifting some of the more stringent sanctions brought on by the international community. For the time being anyway, North Korea looks to be sacrificing economic stability/growth, for the current regime’s self-preservation.
Reason #2: Harsh Sanctions Don’t Hurt North Korea Like They Do for Other Countries
The problem that the international community has with issuing sanctions to North Korea revolves around the fact that it has very little left to sanction. While sanctions can be effective against other countries in terms of economic impact – particularly in the case of luxury goods (like iPhones, imported cars, ect) – North Korea has already been sanctioned quite heavily. Considering North Korea’s only serious trading partner is China (more on that in a bit) and most luxury goods have already been sanctioned; additional sanctions to North Korea could hinder basic humanitarian aid.
Even in the case of China, as we’ve talked about it before, their best interest is to make sure North Korea exists. For North Korea to have such a strong economic partner in China makes putting sanctions against them that much harder. For international sanctions to actually hurt North Korea, either (a) China has to start putting meaningful sanctions against them or (b) the international community will have to start targeting their sanctions on banks – like Bank of China – that help China prop the current North Korean regime. In reality, it’s unlikely either of those situations will happen.
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