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The New Sanctions Regime against North Korea and Its Implications for U.S. Policy

An Interview with David Kang

By Claire Chaeryung Lee
March 17, 2016


North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and launch of a missile earlier this year highlight the regime’s commitment to becoming a nuclear-armed state. In response to these belligerent acts, the UN Security Council passed tougher sanctions against the regime. Concurrent with these developments, the country has undergone a significant level of socioeconomic transformation in the last decade through the introduction of new economic policies that emphasize market growth.

Against the backdrop of this swiftly changing security and economic landscape, David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, examines the new sanctions imposed on North Korea and their implications for U.S. policy.


The United States has explored several approaches to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in the past two decades. Why have these efforts resulted in little success?

Despite there being many ways to interpret the timeline of nuclear negotiations, the one clear element is that the United States and North Korea had an agreement that worked for both sides, for almost a decade, until late 2002. Under the Agreed Framework of 1994, the two countries agreed that North Korea would suspend its operation and construction of nuclear reactors, and that the United States would provide two light-water reactors (LWR) to North Korea in exchange. Until late 2002, despite enormous suspicion on both sides, North Korea allowed UN inspectors into the country and the Yongbyon nuclear reactor was frozen. North Korea only had enough plutonium to make six to eight bombs, and the country had agreed to a voluntary moratorium on missile testing starting in 1999. All of this changed in late 2002. In October of that year, the Bush administration sent Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang to confront the North Korean leadership about a suspected secret uranium enrichment program. At the time, North Korea’s uranium enrichment program was less of a program and more of a hedge against a downturn in its security environment. That is, Pyongyang had not fully developed and was not fully committed to moving forward with a highly enriched uranium program. The hard-line position of the Bush administration essentially resulted in the collapse of the Agreed Framework. Afterward, neither side fully met its obligations and Pyongyang eventually expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Since then, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests and multiple missile tests. These occurred only after both sides failed to live up to their commitments from previous agreements. Indeed, it is likely that the North Koreans included the provision of LWRs in the 2007 round of the six-party talks because they were still looking to the United States to fulfill that commitment. Because these agreements have all fallen through, both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and that the other side made “more significant” breaches of faith. On the U.S. side, this has produced a policy of “strategic patience,” which has led to a stalemate. Stalemate is not a solution, however.


In response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests earlier this year, the UN Security Council passed tougher sanctions. With these new restrictions in place, do you believe the sanctions will serve as an effective U.S. policy tool to change North Korean behavior?

The international community has tried many ways to exert pressure on North Korea over the past two decades. Given the extensive existing sanctions on the country that have had limited success, it is hard to believe that even more pressure will somehow lead the country to choose a new direction. Considering the country’s history of successfully enduring pressure, weathering the economic dysfunction of the mid-1990s and a merciless famine, predictions that the new sanctions will elicit change in Pyongyang’s policies, if not cause a full collapse, rest on thin logic. There is a hope that this new round of sanctions will cause enough distress in Pyongyang that leaders will be forced to make concessions, but the real question is whether China will implement the sanctions. Even if China does, it is questionable whether the regime will suffer enough that North Korea will back down rather than increase provocations. These are all guesses, none of which has proved correct in previous decades. So, unfortunately, I am fairly skeptical that something might be different today.

Furthermore, U.S. policies are limited by an unspoken ceiling on the pressure the United States can exert, and that ceiling is even lower than the threat of war. Washington has rhetorically boxed itself into a corner; North Korean human rights have been such an essential part of the U.S. policy discussion and rhetoric that the United States will have difficulty imposing overarching sanctions against the entire country at the cost of a humanitarian crisis. It is difficult to criticize the North Korean regime for ignoring its people and then impose sanctions that directly harm those same people. Therefore, targeted sanctions, such as the recent UN Security Council measures, have become the only option for the United States. Targeted sanctions, however, have a limited impact on Pyongyang’s decision-making circle.


What are the major limitations that render targeted sanctions ineffective as tools for U.S. policy on North Korea?

It is unlikely that sanctions will ever isolate the country enough to elicit policy change. The internal mechanisms through which Pyongyang makes policy are not affected by the sanctions regime. The targeted sanctions inevitably allow for humanitarian aid to enter the country. It is important to note that any aid that goes into the country saves the government that much money, which can then be used to fund whichever programs it prioritizes. For instance, if an international humanitarian organization helps North Korea fight tuberculosis, which is a critical health concern with human rights implications, the government can spend that much less on public health, which in turn can theoretically be allocated to developing the nuclear program. Also, it is important to note that the nuclear weapons programs are relatively inexpensive to advance and that the country even managed to do so during the height of the 1990s famine. Despite this reality, the question of whether we are going to help people is a difficult one to dismiss because of the centrality of human rights norms in U.S. foreign policy.

To escape this dead end, U.S. policies on North Korea must keep in sight the goal of moving the North Korean people in the right direction by alleviating their misery today, while hopefully beginning to change their views of the outside world and of the regime later. Yet this shift will not happen overnight.


How could engagement policies that prioritize diplomacy and persuasion through increased cooperation be more effective than sanctions in bringing about change in North Korea?

The most promising avenue for transforming North Korea is the economy. The nuclear and security situation looks almost identical to where we were twenty years ago—two sides deterring each other through the use of threats, sanctions, and pressure. But what has changed most about North Korea over those years is its economy. Looking back on the transformation the country has already undergone over the past couple of decades, the economic and business landscape has changed enormously and is unrecognizable compared to what it was in 1995. Despite the fact that North Korea’s economy is not as open as one wishes it to be, it is certainly significantly more penetrated than it was twenty years ago. There is substantially more trade taking place; the best open sources estimate that 40% of North Korean income, if not half, derives from the market economy. It is remarkable how much less people’s livelihoods are tied to the government today than they were before. This is a socioeconomic change without a change in the security environment.

Against this backdrop, the regime has attempted to roll back market forces and rein in the people out of fear of losing central power. Pyongyang is worried that the more people operate in the market, the less control the government will have. Even if the leadership has been occasionally successful at pulling market forces back in, such as its attempt in 2005 to reinstate the public distribution system, it is apparent that change is only heading in one direction: toward growing market functions and away from government control. Pyongyang fears similar change from engagement policies, and the sanctions that further isolate the country in fact help the regime achieve what it struggles for: control of its people.

This is all the more reason that an engagement policy must be a critical part of the United States’ strategy to promote changes in the North. Through such a policy, we can help North Korea’s people avoid suffering and starvation, while moving the country in the right direction. If human rights are of concern, we should remember that the more North Korean people have access to food, a market economy, and the outside world, the better off they are and the closer they are to becoming agents of change. And to me, that is moving the country in the right direction.


How can the United States devise better policy on North Korea going forward?

One of the reasons U.S. policy has not made as much progress as many would like is that we often forget that North Korea is a real country with real people. It is a country with a government, a bureaucracy, and people. It is easy to think that South Korea is a real country with real people; but it is harder to remember that so is North Korea. Despite the fact that there might be cadres of bureaucrats and people who are unhappy with how their country is governed, the great majority of people still take pride in it. Furthermore, the notion that the entire country is wholly dictated by one man at the top, Kim Jong-un, and that millions of undifferentiated automatons follow their maniacal leader does not capture the complicated picture of North Korean politics, let alone society. This country is both more resilient and enduring than we think.

The United States keeps devising policies as if issues related to North Korea would disappear if the country were to simply collapse. However, any solution to the North Korean problem that involves its capitulation is unrealistic. We don’t like North Korea, and we don’t like its leaders or its policies. But we have to deal with it as a country like any other. By now, the United States should begin to devise policies that deal with North Korea as a country that will probably survive as long as it decides to survive. Unfortunately, North Korea is not simply going to disappear, and the United States will have to deal with the country the way it deals with China, Russia, or any other country with which the United States does not necessarily have the most amiable relationship but understands it has to live. My hope is to focus on helping North Korea change over time as we gradually find solutions to its security and economic problems.


Claire Lee is an Intern with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.


David Kang is a Professor of International Relations and Business and Director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.