U.S. leaders are congratulating themselves for convincing China and Russia to go along on a UN Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions on North Korea. The final draft, however, is far different from the original version proposed by U.S. ambassador John Bolton, and falls well short of the highly restrictive unilateral sanctions imposed by Japan earlier in the week. Even if Russia and China had been willing to endorse robust sanctions, it is unlikely that such measures would convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or dismantle its nuclear facilities. Sanctions have a poor record of getting regimes to abandon high-priority policies, and North Korea's nuclear program clearly falls in that category.
Even when sanctions are imposed on a comprehensive multilateral basis, they have a mixed record at best. The most highly touted success story was the decision of South Africa's white minority government to abandon the policy of apartheid and turn over political power to the black majority. But South Africa's transformation was a highly complex process, and sanctions were only one of several factors that led to political change. Moreover, the process took decades.
North Korea is an unpromising candidate for a successful campaign of economic coercion because it is already economically isolated, and it is hard to see how additional pressure is likely to succeed where it has failed in the past.
Consider our recent historical experience with another autocratic state. Beginning in August 1990, the U.N. imposed economic sanctions on Iraq as punishment for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The UN then extended sanctions after the end of the Gulf War in April 1991. But years of international pressure failed to bring down Hussein's government, and did nothing to halt his brutal repression of his own people. The Iraqi people suffered, while Hussein continued to live like a king. In fact, sanctions may have actually made Hussein and his Ba'ath Party allies richer, because they profited from the rampant smuggling that grew up to evade sanctions.
A similar dynamic is now at play in North Korea. Malnutrition and famine are already pervasive. The government-run system for distributing food provides, on average, 250 grams per person per day – 40 percent of the minimum calorie intake recommended by international food aid experts. The UN's World Food Program reports that a survey taken in October 2004 "found 37 percent of young children to be chronically malnourished, and one-third of mothers both malnourished and anemic."
Kim Jong-Il's government is a vampire regime. It will suck whatever resources it needs from the North Korean people to pursue its objectives. Although Kim must ultimately be held responsible for the policies of his government, and while his wanton disregard for the well-being of his people is extreme even among dictators, it is typical of economic sanctions that they hurt the most vulnerable members of society. Indeed, this fatally undermines the effectiveness of sanctions. On the one hand, they are intended to inflict pain and suffering on a target population to the point where the target country capitulates to the demands of the sanctioning powers. On the other hand, the sanctioning powers are troubled by the moral implications of their policies, and they employ other measures for getting food and needed supplies to the neediest people.
That helps to explain why neither China nor South Korea is willing to support broad-based sanctions. The Chinese and the South Koreans also worry about a collapse of the North Korean state, which would unleash hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees across their borders. Imposing sanctions may appear to be an effective, even humane, option. But it is a policy that is simultaneously cruel and ineffective in achieving the desired result – the end of the North Korean nuclear program.