When Sanctions Won’t Work…

By Catherine Kent

Thirty years have now passed since North Korea joined the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985. As nuclear weapons have come to the forefront, the rhetoric and hostility between North Korea and the United States has been escalating. It seems, however, that neither the U.S., nor North Korea can gain the upper hand.

The U.S. has made its presence known to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and kept the country on notice that if need be, the U.S. will come to the defense of South Korea. Each year, South Korea hosts joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. These drills, lasting several weeks, mainly focus on maintaining preparation for a North Korean assault against South Korea. The annual joint exercises do not typically put North Korea in a pleasant mood; in fact, the reaction is generally pretty poor. Last year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) stated that the U.S. and South Korea would “have to pay a dear price” for the exercises. 

The reaction to this year’s drills has been predictably acrimonious. With the drills set to begin on March 2, North Korea began its protest-rhetoric early on Friday, February 27. An official KCNA news agency took this quote from the ruling Workers' Party newspaper: “The DPRK will wage a merciless sacred war against the U.S. now that the latter has chosen confrontation […] Nuclear weapons are not a monopoly of the U.S. […] The U.S. is seriously mistaken if it thinks its mainland is safe”.

Action to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms in North Korea and the threat they pose to the United State’s national security and foreign policy has been ongoing since 2000. More recently, in 2008, the President of the United States has issued several Executive Orders, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Under .E.O. 13466, for instance, those who violate the E.O.’s face criminal fines up to $1,000,000 and imprisonment up to 20 years. Additionally, the Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued the sanctions against North Korea in 2010.

The current U.S. sanctions against North Korea include prohibitions on (1) transferring, paying, exporting, withdrawing, or otherwise dealing in property and interest in property in North Korea or a North Korean national’s on the black list; (2) registering vessels in North Korea or flying the North Korean flag on a vessel; (3) importing goods, services, and technology from North Korea without a license from OFAC; (4) exporting goods to North Korean parties whose property and interest are blocked under E.O. 13551.

In the midst of all these sanctions, a new research project reports that North Korea’s nuclear stockpile could grow from 10-16 nuclear weapons at the end of 2014 to 100 by 2020. The project, the North Korea Nuclear Futures Project is a joint collaboration between Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and National Defense University. The project predicted three possible scenarios for North Korea’s nuclear program’s growth over the next five years. Under the best-case scenario, North Korea is expected to nearly double its stockpile from 10 to 20 nuclear weapons. The worst-case scenario imagines that with an increased commitment to the nuclear and missile programs, North Korea would possess 100 nuclear weapons and 20-30 ICBMs by 2020.

David Albright and Joel Wit announced the project's findings to the press on Tuesday, February 24. Wit remarked that the U.S. is failing in its attempt to encourage North Korea to back down from the nuclear ledge. While the U.S.’s sanctions are an attempt force North Korea on a choice between economic prosperity and nuclear weapons, as Wit said, “[T]hey’re not having to choose. They’re doing both”.  North Korea has been forging relationships with Russia, China, and the ASEAN states and winning them over as a regional federation of countries that accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Chinese companies have been North Korea’s steady smuggler-supplier of Western technologies needed to maintain a nuclear program and its development.

In response to North Korea’s persistence and heightened hostility, the U.S. has decided to go with the tried (and tired) method of more sanctions. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, intended to really crack down (using more sanctions) on North Korea and any countries working to assist in bolstering North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, particularly China. There is also a bill planned in the Senate, which has yet to be introduced.

Rather than relying on a naive hope that these sanctions will somehow be different, the U.S. should consider a strategy of engaging, rather than just isolating North Korea. The focus should be on rebuilding some kind of a normal relationship with North Korea, starting with a treaty with Pyongyang. Any additional negotiations should be aimed directly at China, as a key player with significant leverage in North Korea.