Sanctions: How to Hurt North Korea’s People Rather than their Government

North Korea’s ruling elite appears to be getting along fine despite international sanctions. Washington needs to find a new approach toward the North.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses one of the most vexing challenges to American policy. For more than 20 years U.S. presidents have insisted that the DPRK cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Yet it apparently is preparing for a fifth nuclear test.

A military strike, as proposed by Ashton Carter before he was appointed Defense Secretary, would risk engulfing the peninsula in war. So the U.S. has relied on sanctions. Every time Pyongyang misbehaves—especially tests a nuclear weapon or launches a missile—American officials impose tougher domestic economic penalties and press for harsher UN sanctions.

 After the North’s latest nuclear test earlier this year, China agreed to a new round of restrictions. The increased penalties had no impact of North Korean policy. To the contrary, in early May the Kim regime used the party congress to highlight Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Sanctions have had an impact. The People’s Republic of China has been losing patience and appears to be more tightly regulating cross-border commerce. Some North Korean representatives of blacklisted agencies moved from China to Southeast Asian nations. The regime has resorted to smuggling to bring in banned products. Moreover, Pyongyang appears to be having more difficulty selling weapons abroad.

Nevertheless, Beijing continues to moderate the impact of sanctions. Illicit goods still cross the border and some observers expect the PRC commitment to fade as Western attention moves elsewhere. Beijing more fears chaos on its border than a North Korea with nuclear weapons. President Xi Jinping recently declared: “As a close neighbor of the peninsula, we will absolutely not permit war or chaos on the peninsula.”

The Xi government so far refuses to halt energy and food shipments, the only step that would apply bone-crunching pressure to the Kim regime. Even then, Pyongyang might refuse to comply. The regime already is blaming the West, preparing its people for what it calls an “arduous march.”

During the late 1990s the regime survived the virtual collapse of the economy and starvation death of a half million or more North Koreans. The Kim dynasty might survive similar hardship in the future.

Unfortunately, the uniform experience of sanctions is that they hurt those with the least resources and influence. That appears to be the case in North Korea.

So far the powerful have prospered, despite penalties directed against luxury imports. The Washington Post recently reported on “Pyonghattan,” home to North Korea’s privileged elite. In contrast, argued Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, “the average North Korean will also bear the brunt of the sanctions.”

The latest round of sanctions has increased hardship. Choi Ha-young, chairman of the Love North Korean Children Charity, complained: “Currently, due to the UN sanctions, people in the lowest class are really impacted.”

As I point out in National Interest: “Washington seems to have only one response to the North: increase sanctions. However, this policy is a dead-end. The U.S. and its allies must find a new strategy toward Pyongyang.”