Caught trying: North Korea and the curse of good intentions

2016 saw an additional two rounds of anti-nuclear sanctions added to North Korea’s already heavy load. In March, following the fourth test, exports of gold, vanadium, titanium, and rare earth metals were banned, as well as all exports of coal and iron not for “livelihood purposes”. A second UN resolution in November further restricted coal exports and banned exports of copper, nickel, zinc, and silver.

At the point of going to press, North Korea was continuing to make slow-but-steady progress with its nuclear and missiles programmes, much as it has for the past two decades.

Why have North Korean sanctions failed?

Around 84% of North Korea’s external commerce is with China. The total sum amounts to a little over $5 billion, which is a drop in the ocean of China’s foreign trade, but an essential lifeline for North Korea. Closing the border would barely touch China’s economy, even in the provinces that do most business with the DPRK.

Nevertheless, it is not in China’s interests to join in US efforts to sanction North Korea, however belligerent the DPRK leadership may become. Any policy that succeeded in destabilising North Korea would not only run the risk of driving a flood of refugees across the porous northern border into China, but may even lead to reunification under a US-aligned government in Seoul – thus depriving China of a key strategic buffer zone. Faced with US insistence that sanctions are necessary, the only reasonable policy for China to adopt is that of smiling and nodding and continuing to ignore any and all UN texts in the knowledge that no one will be willing to make a big issue of their lack of compliance. (Customs and shipping data show that China is still carrying on a lively trade in coal and metal products with North Korea, despite the latest round of UN resolutions.)

However, even if China were suddenly to abandon its own interests and impose the letter of the law concerning UN sanctions, it is doubtful whether this would improve North Korea’s behaviour. As the famine of the 1990s showed, there is seemingly no level of suffering sufficient to coerce the North Korean population into mounting a successful rebellion against their leaders. Moreover, historical evidence shows that the government tends to increase both its military efforts and its internal repression when it feels itself to be under outside pressure.

Something must be done…

While the North Korean sanctions debate is often presented as a choice between a policy of preventing North Korea’s nuclear development by means of sanctions vs. a policy of preventing North Korea’s nuclear development by means of engagement, this seems like an unduly optimistic viewpoint. At this point in the story, it would be far more realistic to see it as a choice between failing to prevent North Korea’s nuclear development by means of sanctions vs. failing to prevent North Korea’s nuclear development by means of engagement. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power admitted as much, accepting that the latest round of sanctions was being undertaken more for the sake of seeming to do something than with any real hope of improving the situation: “The United States is realistic about what this resolution will achieve. No resolution in New York will likely, tomorrow, persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

If, then, as the old saw has it, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, why do the supporters of both positions continue to fight so acrimoniously for their own preferred solution, flying in the face of historical evidence suggesting that neither has any chance of success?

Various explanations suggest themselves: virtue-signaling, domestic electoral politics, a lack of alternative ideas… Crucially, however, they also seem to reflect a key trend in US politics since at least the Clinton administration: the belief that “something must be done”. As Hillary Clinton said about the US intervention in Libya, the administration would rather have been “caught trying” than to do nothing. In other words, they were of the opinion that well-intentioned failure was to be preferred to amoral non-intervention, even when the latter produced a better outcome.

The new boss

While Donald Trump was roundly mocked in the media for admitting after meeting Xi Jinping that solving the North Korea issue would be more complicated than he had realised, he nevertheless deserves some praise for working out in a mere two months something that took the previous administration eight years to fully get their heads around.

The new US policy towards North Korea has been somewhat eccentric. While Donald Trump declared himself happy to speak to Kim Jong Un, the State Department responded to the latest missile launch with an icily intimidating three-sentence communique: “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” (A signal change from the reams of abstract verbiage that traditionally greeted each new explosion.) This was followed by a series of confusing statements and retractions suggesting that a U.S. carrier group may or may not be heading for Korean waters.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration may well have a stronger chance of subduing the DPRK government’s more militaristic urges than the previous predictable cycle of condemnations, sanctions, détente and provocation. For many years the DPRK has made hay from its status as the most unpredictable kid on the block. The sudden arrival of a competitor is likely to give the North Korean leadership significant pause for thought.

Click here to download white paper.