In the pre-interview for a recent live radio appearance, the producer asked if the suffering of the North Korean people was not the product of economic sanctions. I responded that the suffering of the North Korean people had begun long before the imposition of United Nations sanctions in 2006; that most of the sanctions were essentially defensive in nature—aimed at disrupting North Korean proliferation activities, that the “punitive” sanctions were limited to restrictions on luxury goods imports; and that even in the case of US unilateral sanctions, evidence of North Korean export performance in markets not covered by sanctions indicated that supply problems on the North Korean side, not restrictions on demand, were the constraint. Or as Steph Haggard summed it up in private correspondence, “It is important to begin with a clear-headed understanding of what is going on: that the regime is ultimately responsible for the humanitarian problems in the country. They have refused to prioritize human development when they are under sanction, and they have refused to do so when they are not under sanction.” As in the case of Iraq, there seems to be a building momentum to obfuscate this fundamental point.
In part 1 of this post, I reviewed the evidence on sanctions and Iraq. One basic point is that the suffering of the Iraqi people began well before the imposition of sanctions. In the ABC talk show, Joy Gordon of Fairfield University argued that while the sanctions may not have caused the destruction of Iraq in the first place, they may have impeded its rebuilding after the First Gulf War. Fair point. But one has to ask if that is the relevant counterfactual: would have the resources freed up by sanctions removal gone to genuine rebuilding or simply more palaces for Saddam and his sons? Even this issue has a parallel in the North Korean case: as Steph Haggard and Luke Herman observed in a recent blog post, that according to the Supreme People’s Assembly ““44.8 percent of the total state budgetary expenditure for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.” A reform plan that lists the building of edifices as its first priority does not augur well.“
That said, is it possible that expanded financial sanctions, such as the targeting of the Chosun Trade Bank by the US, Australia, Japan (and possibly others) could harm “legitimate” business, and by extension innocent North Koreans. (Though given the pervasive role of the state in the North Korean economy, “legitimate” is a pretty squishy concept in this context.) This is certainly true: as sanctions become broader and less targeted, the likelihood of collateral damage grows. That is one of the reasons that Haggard and I have consistently argued for not conditioning humanitarian aid on political developments. But the behavior of the North Korean state fundamentally matters: as Haggard and I demonstrated in Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, during the famine the regime substituted aid for commercial food imports, reducing the potential aggregate supply of food, and even after non-food imports recovered, the state would not spend on commercial food imports, emphasizing other priorities, particularly military expenditures. In the current context, when it appears that the country is running a current account surplus, and uncovered food import needs are relatively small, there is no excuse for the regime not to feed its people.
Most of the sanctions currently imposed on North Korea are “defensive” in nature, aiming to thwart proliferation activities; it is a basic analytical and ethical mistake to frame the issue as sanctions being the cause of humanitarian distress.
Finally, what is the alternative? Sanction critics seldom say. Are military threats a preferable alternative? Because that is where we’re heading: more B-2 bomber flyovers, more aircraft carriers visiting the West Sea, larger exercises etc. Economic sanctions are less likely to generate “kinetic” results than a military signal gone awry. Under current political conditions, with North Korea repeatedly threatening a nuclear first strike, if one abjures the sanctions option, the result will be greater reliance on methods that are even more fraught, not some reorientation toward greater aid and more engagement.