The recent Global Times editorial, discussed by me in my article on UN Security Council Resolution 2753, has spoken of US attempts to use sanctions to ‘collapse’ North Korea’s economy and to ‘suffocate’ the North Korean regime as an idea that is both dangerous and counterproductive
Some Americans and South Koreans have attempted to collapse Pyongyang’s economy and suffocate the current Pyongyang regime. This is dangerous. North Korea’s nuclear crisis requires arduous efforts to find a final solution, and any attempt to immediately end the crisis will only escalate tensions and eventually jeopardize self-interests.
This is exactly correct. Indeed one of the most concerning aspects of the swirl of discussion that takes place in the West and the US especially about sanctions on North Korea is that there is never any real explanation of what sanctions on North Korea are supposed to achieve.
Every so often Western leaders speak of sanctions as intended either to ‘force’ the North Koreans to negotiate – though since the US refuses to give North Korea security guarantees it is never made clear what the North Koreans are supposed to agree to ‘negotiate’ about – or to abandon their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme entirely.
If these are the objectives behind the sanctions policy, then it has visibly failed. Since North Korea carried out its first nuclear test on 9th October 2006 there have been eight UN Security Council Resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, whilst the US has imposed unilateral sanctions of its own. Far from deterring the North Koreans from pursuing their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme or causing them to abandon it, the North Koreans have instead accelerated it.
That sanctions, however severe they become, will never persuade the North Koreans to give up their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme was recently pointed out by President Putin of Russia. Speaking in his usual direct way, President Putin set out the position clearly on 5th September 2017 at a press conference in China following the latest BRICS summit
Sanctions of any kind are useless and ineffective in this case. As I said to one of my colleagues yesterday, they will eat grass, but they will not abandon this programme unless they feel safe.
Whilst few world leaders have the confidence to say this as forcefully as President Putin did, the comments at the UN Security Council meeting on Monday at which Resolution 2753 was passed of the ambassadors of China, Italy, Sweden, Egypt, Uruguay, Bolivia, Kazakhstan, Senegal, South Korea and Ethiopia, show that privately it is widely shared. In comments which were clearly addressed to the US, all of them in their different ways pressed for negotiations to begin with the North Koreans without further delay, though none of them spelt out exactly how these negotiations should take place.
If sanctions will not force the North Koreans to give up their ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, what else might they achieve?
One possibility is that they will achieve nothing. North Korea’s Juche economic policy is specifically intended to insulate North Korea from the effect of sanctions. As I have recently pointed out, despite the various sanctions which have been imposed on North Korea since 2006, its economy is apparently growing strongly. The latest sanctions imposed on North Korea by Resolution 2753 will not change that.
More likely is that the sanctions will reduce North Korea’s economic growth and inflict greater hardship on its people. Since that will not however stop North Korea from pursuing its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, it is difficult to see the sense of this.
Resolution 2753 speaks at length of the UN Security Council’s concern for the welfare of North Korea’s people. How is that consistent with imposing sanctions, which will reduce their welfare but which will not prevent or even slow down the North Korean government’s pursuit of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, which is the ostensible target of the sanctions?
A less likely alternative, but one which as Global Times rightly says “some Americans and South Koreans” are clearly aiming for, is that the sanctions will provoke an economic and eventually a political crisis in North Korea, putting in jeopardy the existence of the North Korean regime.
Not only is that the least likely alternative, but it is also by far the most dangerous. North Korea is now a nuclear armed state in possession of ballistic missiles which have Tokyo and Seoul within range. Given the nature of the North Korean regime and its possession of both ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, it is difficult to imagine any more dangerous scenario than one in which it comes to fear for its survival because of an internal crisis caused by sanctions imposed upon it by the US.
It is commonly though rather glibly said that the US has no ‘good options’ with respect to North Korea. Though that may be true, there are most definitely some options which are far worse than others. If launching a military attack on North Korea is the worst option of all, engineering an internal crisis within North Korea seems hardly better.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that the reason the US continues to press for sanctions against North Korea is not because it has any coherent plan for what these sanctions are supposed to achieve.
It is because the US hates being backed into a corner and having to retreat, and rather than do this and lose face it instead strikes out at North Korea in the only way it can, with more and more sanctions. That doing this is either pointless or dangerous apparently matters less than the loss of face negotiating with Pyongyang might cause.
Negotiating with Pyongyang is something that the US will however eventually have to do. The comments of the ambassadors at the debate in the UN Security Council shows that even some US allies like Italy and Sweden are now close to demanding it.
With the Chinese and the Russians clearly signalling that the sanctions route is now all but exhausted, and with the Chinese-Russian roadmap for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula visibly gaining traction, the US risks becoming isolated in the UN Security Council if it persists with its current stance.
Should that position ever be reached, the US could find that a security treaty brokered by the Chinese and the Russians and backed by a majority of UN Member States is agreed by the two Koreas in which the US has no part.
For the ‘exceptional’ ‘indispensable’ country – which is what the US claims itself to be – that would of course be the greatest humiliation of all.