Since 1936, “May you always live in interesting times” has been cited by British statesmen as a Chinese malediction, and even though the validity of the origin story is debatable, the maxim is particularly relevant for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) in 2016. About a week ago, China announced strengthened sanctions against North Korea. The U.N. Security Council voted in March to increase sanctions following the fourth North Korean nuclear nuclear test and the launch of a long-range rocket in February. The most recent sanctions restrict imports of North Korean coal, iron ore, gold and sales of jet fuel. Is the DPRK a threat to the U.S.? What are the implications of these sanctions, and what are the human costs of the China-U.S.-led attempt to starve the funding of the DPRK nuclear weapons program?
Though the opacity, truculence and belligerence of the DPRK’s nuclear program has continued to make headlines, the DPRK presents little to no direct military threat to the United States and its allies. American politicians must realize that nuclear weapons are political, not military, instruments and that the DPRK is making a statement for its survival by testing nuclear weapons rather than attempting to provoke a sleeping giant. The major threats posed by the DPRK are rooted in the psychological assumptions and uncertainty of Kim Jung-Un as a national leader. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were both considered irrational and paranoid survivalists, yet the madman theory does not succeed as an appropriate determination of the DPRK threat to the U.S. Discussions of irrationality are not fruitful academically. If a head of state truly is irrational or paranoid, it is impossible to make any causal link between that psychological state and expected outcomes. Second, such an accusation is not falsifiable. By resorting to an irrational demagogue as an explanatory variable, analysts appeal to a process of thought where any North Korean action can be explained de facto and by which any action can be possible. Even though North Korea is still technically at war — the 1953 armistice was never replaced with a peace treaty — the DPRK has been deterred from any major aggression for 60 years.
These sanctions will have little consequence in slowing down the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. The loophole in the Chinese sanctions is far too large. China will continue to purchase coal from the DPRK (the DPRK is China’s third largest provider of coal) if revenue is intended for “the people’s well-being.” As trade will continue, the DPRK will continue to take measures to display national strength. Weak states do what they must, and with the U.S. deploying the THAAD missile-defense system to South Korea, the DPRK will continue to pursue a nuclear weapons system that will force other international actors to take it seriously. The lack of effects the 2006, 2009 and 2013 U.N. sanctions had on the DPRK serve as further proof.
The most recent sanctions continue the trend of passively accepting North Korean human rights violations. Human rights measures have still not been brought to a vote in the U.N. Security Council given the certainty that China and Russia would veto it. Mining industry workers will likely suffer the most from the U.N. ban on the export of North Korean minerals. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a February report that the North Korean people are already suffering a significant food shortage. The FAO states that the DPRK needs 440,000 tons of food from abroad this year, but so far, international donors have only provided 17,600 tons. North Korea’s state media warned in March that the sanctions may cause another “arduous march,” referring to the famine in the 1990s that killed over 3 million people. The DPRK is more of a humanitarian crisis than an international threat, and I am not sure more unreliable sanctions are the solution. Hopefully, international actors will stop seeing the DPRK as a black box to be bullied by the standard operating procedure of sanctions and more of a nation-state of nuanced issues, constantly reacting from existential threats surrounding the authoritarian state.
Contact James Stephens at james214 ‘at’ stanford.edu.