On March 2, the United Nations Security Council imposed what it is believed to be the broadest and toughest sanction against North Korea in response to its nuclear test and rocket launch. The sanction resolution mandates states to inspect all cargoes going in and out of North Korea, bans the sale of all small arms and conventional weapons, forbids the export of aviation fuel to North Korea, prohibits the export of North Korean coal and minerals, closes North Korean financial institutions engaging illicit transactions, and blacklists North Korean individuals and institutions. Resolution 2270 is built on the past sanction measures against North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs, and it closed the loopholes in UNSC Resolutions such as 1695 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013).
Beyond the new sweeping sanctions adopted by the Security Council, many unilateral sanction measures have been put in place by South Korea, Japan, the United States, and European Union. South Korea shut down its operation in the Kaesong industrial park, the last major cooperation project between the two Koreas, to prevent North Korea from using earnings from the joint project for the development of nuclear and missile capability. On March 8, South Korea also unveiled a package of new unilateral sanctions on North Korea. Japan imposed unilateral sanctions on February 10, banning all North Korean vessels from Japanese ports. With bipartisan support, President Obama signed HR 757 into law, sanctioning all entities and individuals that have directly or indirectly contributed to North Korea’s weapon programs. The European Union added more entities and individuals onto its sanction lists.
If the latest sanctions, both the multilateral ones and the unilateral ones, are effectively implemented, they will choke off North Korea’s economic activities, and further worsen its dire economic situation. Sanctions failed to dissuade North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs in the past; will sanctions work this time?
That depends partially on North Korea’s tricks and skills to circumvent sanction measures, partially on the implementation by concerned UN member states, and partially on whether a way out will be offered for North Korea.
The official Korean Central News Agency asserted in an editorial that “sanctions and pressure will never work on the DPRK, which has been exposed to all kinds of sanctions and blockade for decades”, and ironically that could be true. Unlike Iran, against which sanctions have arguably worked in addressing the nuclear proliferation problem, North Korea, often called the Hermit Kingdom, has neither frequent exchanges with other countries nor a large volume of trade, thus North Korea is generally less vulnerable to sanctions. What is more important, North Korea has learned to make full use of the loopholes in the sanction measures, and managed to survive from the heavy blow of sanctions in the past. The report published two years ago by the UN Panel of Experts established pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009) explained that clearly. In addition, the North Korean government could manage to allocate its scarce resources in favor of the officials, the military, and the nuclear and missile programs. North Korea is fairly resilient in a tough economic environment, and nobody knows whether the toughest sanctions in 20 years will prevail.
Implementation is equally important, if not more so. If concerted efforts are made with respect to the implementation of multilateral and unilateral sanctions, sanctions will definitely force North Korea to make a choice between developing nuclear and missile capabilities and coming back to the negotiation table. For implementation to that degree, countries concerned must first reach consensus over sanction details including making a distinction between sanctions targeting the weapons of mass destruction programs and sanctions that might hurt the ordinary North Koreans, and how to accommodate different policy preferences in addressing North Korea’s nuclear issue. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in his recent press conference, China has the responsibility and capability to implement Security Council resolutions, but China does not think moves that will escalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula are conducive to finally resolving this situation. More important, North Korea has many invisible businesses with South Asian, Middle East, and African countries as well, and homework should be done in advance so that sanctions could be biting.
North Korea should pay a price for its violation of the UNSC resolutions, but punishment itself will not automatically solve the nuclear problem. If sanctions could not be translated into a strategic rethink, they will only add more pain to the ordinary North Koreans’ already miserable life. The United States wants to apply what has succeeded in the Iranian case to the North Korean case, namely forcing and seducing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Technically the United States is still at war with North Korea after the Cold War ended for more than two decades. If the armistice agreement can’t be replaced with a peace treaty, North Korea will keep justifying its nuclear and missile programs. As Security Council Resolution 2270 clearly stated, sanctions are to bring North Korea to the negotiation table. China has proposed the shift from armistice agreement to peace treaty, and the United States and North Korea have approached each other over possible negotiation of a peace treaty. Might it be the time for all parties to explore the possibility to address the North Korea nuclear problem in a comprehensive way? If the regime-threatening sanctions this time aim only to bring North Korea down to its knees, North Korea will likely do more to deter the threat of regime change.