In these very first months of 2018, a breath of hope has blown over the Korean peninsula. We are witnessing something that seemed impossible only few months ago. The military hotline has been reopened through the 38° parallel, North and South Korean athletes have marched under the same flag at the opening ceremony of the Pyongchang Olympics and high level meetings between the political establishments of the two Koreas have taken place both in Seoul and Pyongyang. However, we cannot be too optimistic about the outcome of this “rapprochement,” because its base is fragile. President Moon’s actions are still led by the misjudgment that he can simultaneously pursue engagement with the North and the denuclearization of the country. The U.S. continues to insist on preconditions for any talks with the North. Kim Jong Un will be willing to discuss denuclearization of the Peninsula only when military threat toward the country is removed and its regime safety is guaranteed. But here the U.S. plays the key role.
Late last month at the CPAC, President Trump announced what he called the “heaviest”-ever set of sanctions against North Korea, targeting the regime’s shipping and trading companies. How many times have we heard this (in)famous expression— the heaviest sanctions ever? Too many. North Korea has been under harsh sanctions for twelve years. Have sanctions caused a change in the Kim regime’s behavior or forced North Korea to abandon the development of its nuclear and missile programs? No. So, what has the U.S.-led international community achieved with its policy of sanctioning North Korea so far?
In a report of March 2017, the UN Resident Coordinator in North Korea, Tapan Mishra, affirmed that international sanctions have “caused disruptions to humanitarian operations […] agencies have been forced to significantly reduce the assistance they provide. Consequently, critical needs of some of the most vulnerable have not been met.” According to the report, 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished and 28 percent of children under five years old have stunted growth, while most of the country’s population lacks access to basic services or sanitation. In his statement at the UN General Assembly last October, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, also expressed his concern that “sanctions might have a direct consequence on the enjoyment of human rights.” Because of the sanctions, cancer patients may not get access to chemotherapy, the access to other medical supplies is prevented, the shipment of essential equipment for persons with disabilities is constrained. In addition, humanitarian actors are facing difficulties in funding much needed supplies and carrying out international financial transactions.
At the end of the day, it is crystal clear that the nine rounds of economic sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UNSC, the unilateral ones imposed by the U.S. and its allies— Japan and South Korea— and by the EU have only caused more suffering for the ordinary and most vulnerable citizens of North Korea. Even their security has been negatively affected by the sanctions, as the regime has turned to illicit activities— such as drug trafficking, currency counterfeiting, smuggling of contraband and cyber attacks— to circumvent sanctions and balance their effects. Until sanctions are off the table, the North Korean leadership will keep focusing on its self-preservation instead of the prosperity of the country.
For this reason, the choice of the U.S.-led international community of sanctions as the sole foreign policy tool to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table has benefitted the Kim regime itself. Being completely isolated, it has gone on undisturbed with the development of nuclear and missile programs, becoming a de facto nuclear power, and has achieved a greater control over its people. Sanctions do not work with North Korea because, contrary to the Iranian case, the country has never been integrated into the international economy, so trying to further isolate it does not affect the regime nor its support base (the party, the military and the security apparatus.) Secondly, sanctions against Iran have been strictly implemented, while in the North Korean case, China will never enforce sanctions completely for reasons linked to Beijing’s own interests. Moreover, North Korea is used to shortages and hardship. The situation in the 1990s was worse than today, when the country’s trade value was one third of its value today. If the Kim regime was able to survive amidst a devastating famine, natural disasters, two power successions, three nuclear crises and isolation and pressure by external actors, there is no reason to believe that any new sanctions will cause, in the short term, such damage that the leadership will give up its sole survival guarantee— the nuclear and missile programs. Since 1948, Pyongyang has showed an incredible resilience and ability to adapt to new and more demanding circumstances. This is not going to change in the near future.
The U.S.-led international community should realize that the best option for dealing with North Korea lies elsewhere. Diplomacy and constructive engagement are the key not only to defusing tensions and avoiding war, but also to improving the quality of life for ordinary North Koreans and upholding international human rights standards. Often, critics of this kind of approach say that the latter is the responsibility of the North Korea leadership. In principle this is right, but in practice this is not the case; the international community well knows what the priorities of the Kim regime are. If human rights are a concern of the “West,” the U.S. and its partners should consider that creating the conditions to provide humanitarian aid and food to the country’s population, as well as to engage and bring North Korea into the global community, does not “appease” or “reward” the regime. As written in one of the best books on North Korea: “Human subsistence is a moral question that transcends politics and this principle must be adhered to not only by North Korea but also by its neighbors.”